For all the millions of dollars poured into prestige television this year – it makes me dizzy thinking about the drapery budget alone on The Queen’s Gambit – the most beautiful, profound, and entertaining work was found on a show that looks like it cost approx. $43.50. HBO’s How to with John Wilson, which recently wrapped its first season, is television perfectly timed to 2020: an anxious, idiosyncratic, and ultimately profound exploration of the joys and peculiarities of living in a city surrounded by people.
Across six half-hour episodes, each of which takes months to assemble and edit, documentarian John Wilson roams around New York attempting to answer seemingly simple queries like, “How to improve your memory” or “How to put up scaffolding.” Wilson’s adventures, which he narrates but rarely appears on-camera for, paint a vivid portrait of life pre-COVID – before a poignant swerve in the season finale throws him, and us, into the thick of the pandemic.
The day that HBO announced it was renewing How to for a second season, Wilson spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about the strangeness of getting recognized, the allure of reality TV, and the saddest premiere party ever.
Congratulations on the renewal for Season 2.
Yeah, they fell for it again if you can believe it. They didn’t learn their lesson the first time. But I can’t wait to continue. Though I never really stopped. I have a bunch of stuff that I shot after we wrapped, which we can put into new episodes.
Is all the new material going to be pandemic-focused?
I’m not pursuing anything specific right now. It’s just my resting state: I’m always filming, no matter what. I’ve been trying to collect as much imagery of pandemic New York as I can because we may be taking for granted how interesting the city looks right now. I want to make sure not to spoil this opportunity to document it obsessively.
How has life changed in the city for you from the end of Season 1 to today?
The last images in the finale capture the eeriest moments in my New York history. But now we’re fully into this sawtooth-like recovery and it’s an every-man-for-himself kind of way. But it’s also led to some visually exciting stuff. People on the internet, which is all I have right now as a sounding board, are saying, “How can you continue a show like this in a pandemic New York?” I feel the opposite way. The way people are behaving in public right now is a thousand times more interesting than the first season. I feel a responsibility to make a thorough historical document of this very specific time.
One of the first things that struck me about the show was how HBO releases each new episode at 11 p.m. on Fridays. Though after watching it, it makes sense. That’s the best time to absorb it.
I’m amazed that anybody watches TV with a rigid schedule any more. When they told me it was Friday nights at 11, I didn’t feel one way or another about it. But I don’t personally have HBO or a TV. So I had to rent a motel room to watch the first episode as it aired. I thought more hotels would offer HBO but the only ones I could find were near the airport. It was a strange, lonely premiere party.
I really hope this figures into Season 2.
Me too. But I’m not sure how self-referential to be at any given time. I don’t like to be too navel-gazey. I like to dip in and out pretty quickly.
That brings up an interesting point, because I read that you were starting to get recognized on the street. Which is weird, because we so rarely see you in the series.
That was a surprise. It’s by design obviously that I don’t show myself, and I don’t want to be the face of it. But the HBO image for the show that pops up on their web player is me looking straight into the camera. I gave up once that happened. But if people recognize me, that’s cool. However people behave, that’s what the show is about.
One thing that people tend to bring up when discussing the show is this immediate skepticism that certain parts are set-up, preconceived. I feel that’s because we’ve been conditioned by decades of reality television that there’s no such thing as happenstance.
That’s a huge problem that [producer Nathan Fielder] and I take a lot of care to consider. To make sure people could tell that it is real. Like with my friend’s car wash, when he’s really upset, Nathan showed that to someone and they were like, “Oh, that’s fake.” And we were confused, like, what makes you think it’s fake? So we recut it to take out parts that felt artificial, even though it was real. We’ve been fed the same diet of artificial gruel for so long that we don’t think we can trust images any more. Stuff like Borat, which I like for different reasons, but it has made it harder for documentary to convince people of its real-ness.
And what’s your current diet of images?
I was watching The Bachelorette last night. That’s a fascinating cultural artifact, this season especially, because they’re all in this quarantine bubble. Normally when you get kicked off, you go back to Hollywood or whatever. But in this case, you might die.
Nathan’s show Nathan for You has reconfigured how people think of businesses. Any time you see a business that looks a little too absurd or desperate, you think it has to be a Nathan for You bit. Your series, though, has recontextualized the everyday. I can’t look at scaffolding the same way.
Yeah, I’m sorry about that. And maybe that episode triggered some kind of erotic response in some people, too. That’s the joy of making this stuff. All my favourite movies, TV shows have transformed the way that I see the world. That’s the greatest gift an artist can give someone. But I also feel bad, because people have been texting me that they’re now getting a lot of advertisements for Stove Top stuffing now, which seems to be a plague I’ve unleashed onto everybody who watched the show, because Instagram is listening to them.
I have to ask about your landlady, who got ill during that season finale.
She is alive and well. I don’t want to give away too much, because it could be part of a Season 2 arc. But I can assure you that she’s doing well.
How to with John Wilson is available to stream on Crave.
This interview has been condensed and edited
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