‘How to With John Wilson’: An Astonishing Portrait of New York City and Its Earliest Pandemic Days

Caroline Framke
·5-min read

New York City wasn’t built for a shutdown. With buildings seemingly stacked on top of each other, the teeming crowds of people weaving between them, and countless nooks and crannies hiding tantalizing secrets for those who stumble upon them, “the city that never sleeps” was given that nickname for millions of reasons. As much as any city can have a pulse, New York has one of the most stubborn heartbeats in the world. So when it ground to a halt in March as the novel coronavirus swept through, it wasn’t just devastating, but downright eerie. New York City, constantly brimming over with life in all its beautiful and grotesque forms, wasn’t built to be put on pause.

HBO’s How to With John Wilson” captures this heartbreaking dichotomy with breathtaking, evenhanded, and even hilarious accuracy. Over six episodes, the last of which aired Nov. 27, John Wilson’s docuseries brings us into New York City with less of a birds-eye view than a subway rat’s, unseen by most everyone but keenly observant of absolutely everything. Wilson’s camera guides his viewer on several winding journeys through the city as he explores its more esoteric corners, interviews people completely unaccustomed to being interviewed, and happily jumps down every rabbit hole he finds. All the while, his sincere, sometimes stuttering voiceover (written by Wilson, Michael Koman and Alice Gregory) explains what’s happening and how Wilson feels about it. And yet, he always delivers his commentary in the second person: “you start to notice,” “you decide,” “you realize.” Suddenly, we’re just as involved as Wilson is in what’s unfolding onscreen, at his explicit invitation to relate to what we’re seeing as much as he did while filming it.

To call Wilson simply a comedian seems unfair to his documentarian skills, which see him capturing the kind of city life that constantly plays out in the background but rarely gets such a spotlight. (Also, the actor Kyle McLachlan, seemingly unaware he’s being filmed, as he stoically tries and fails to swipe his metro card over, and over, and over again.) But to just call Wilson a “documentarian” also undercuts how slyly funny he is, whether he’s musing on the origins of scaffolding or landing a punchline with pointed shots of shop awnings, oblivious passersby and/or trash bouncing by like urban tumbleweeds. (There’s a reason he counts Nathan Fielder as one of his executive producers.) New York City has been committed to film so many times before that it seems impossible to find any new way to portray it, and yet Wilson‘s eye keeps finding astonishing new avenues to go down, accurately depicting his home as a massive labyrinth of human life just as profound and mundane, disgusting and beautiful as its people.

At first, it’s easy to get lost in the bizarre, idiosyncratic world of “How to With John Wilson.” But somewhere in its fourth and fifth episodes, it’s hard not to try and do the kind of mental math that’s become all too familiar now, many months into the pandemic. You start to wonder when it was filmed and if the virus was there yet. You start to watch scenes filmed in windowless rooms with a grimace, hoping that everyone inside them are still around and okay. You start to see people walking by in haphazard masks and feel a surge of panic, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That moment comes in the season’s sixth and final chapter, “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto.” As with every other episode, this one starts somewhat innocuously in an entirely different place than where it’ll eventually end. Wilson re-introduces us to his landlord, an elderly Italian woman he affectionately calls “Mama.” He tells us that he wants to learn how to make risotto, her favorite dish, as a way to say thank you for years of cooked dinners and nights spent watching “Jeopardy!” together. Wilson spends a solid third of the episode just trying and failing to make the notoriously tricky dish, and for a while, it seems like this will be the entire story. But as with most every documentary endeavor, reality encroaches on his best laid plans.

The bulk of “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” was filmed in the first months of 2020, and as such, unwittingly becomes a living document of what New York City looked like as it ground to a halt. Wilson (“you”) starts to pick up on emptier buses, Ubers duct-taping tissue boxes to their doors, diner TV sets seemingly stuck on a loop of grim news about imminent death. In one genuinely distressing scene given what we know now about how the virus spreads, Wilson follows an enormous line of unmasked people snaking through a grocery store past emptier and emptier shelves. He’s still ostensibly figuring out how to make his landlady the perfect risotto — hence the determined grocery shop — but everything he tries now has a quietly heartbreaking new urgency to it. And by the time he finally does manage to make a decent risotto, he can’t bring it over to her apartment to share over a “Jeopardy!” episode. Instead, he leaves it for her on the stairs, from where it silently, but promptly, disappears overnight.

Eight months into the pandemic and counting, many TV shows have tried to address our bizarre new world in all sorts of ways, most more tortured than revelatory. None come close to what “How to With John Wilson” does simply by showing how people reacted and adjusted in real time with real care and compassion for a city that would soon be hurting more than it could possibly know, before building itself back up as it always has and always will.

All six episodes of “How to With John Wilson” are now available on HBO and to stream on HBO Max.

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