Arts and Entertainment

How To Rediscover New York: A Quarantine Cult Classic About Meeting Strangers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Great art can show viewers the beauty of new places and make them feel the emotions of new characters. HBO’s docuseries “How To with John Wilson” manages to pull off the opposite: it returns the viewer to a location they’ve been to a thousand times and reveals the beauty, the comedy, and the drama of the people all around them.

In “How To,” the creator, director, lead actor, lead writer, cameraman, and narrator John Wilson combines thousands of hours of observational footage of New York City streets with footage of his personal interactions, shot from his point-of-view, and his narration, into a cohesive narrative. As Wilson puts it, “Imagine Planet Earth except it’s all filmed in New York City and David Attenborough is also the cameraman.” The show appears instructional, with episodes titled “How To Make Small Talk” or “How to Improve Your Memory,” but these lessons merely exist to frame the footage. While Wilson’s narration insists that it’s trying to improve your social skills, the images on screen say otherwise. They seem to act on their own, comedically defying Wilson’s commentary. He tells us how strangers enjoy interacting as two drivers yell at one another. When he flies home to LaGuardia Airport and declares how he’s happy to be back, his camera highlights a garbage fire on the tarmac.

Wilson is able to find comedy in the most obvious and subtle places. He captures a woman in Times Square sneaking a pigeon into her bag and a man playing the flute while hanging upside down on scaffolding. He also observes the nuances of human interaction, scrutinizing the unspoken negotiation between diners once the check arrives, the rules of public displays of affection, and peoples’ reactions to topics they don’t understand. The editing allows the images to tell their own hilarious, and at times profound, story.

What elevates “How To” above most other comedies, though, is that even once the metropolitan shenanigans are over, the unique characters Wilson encounters on his journeys endure. While “How To” may not improve your memory as promised, you’ll never forget the people at the first ever Mandela Effect conference, where attendees earnestly describe how the single “e” found in Febreze is evidence for a multiverse or the Italian who describes the aliens living in our society while cooking risotto. Each person he meets is crazy in his or her own way, but aren’t we all? Instead of inviting the audience to just laugh at the stupidity of Americans, like in “Borat” (2002), “How To” forces the viewer to introspect after their laughter and see the weaknesses in themselves and the humanity in others. It shows their moments of kindness, vulnerability, and frustration, along with those of ignorance. On a trip to Cancun, Wilson encounters the rapping, drug-taking spring breaker Chris. Most shows would end the interaction right there, content to just laugh at the unhinged stranger. But “How To” goes beyond most shows. The next morning, Wilson talks to Chris again, where he confesses the underlying loneliness that drove him to make a solo trip to Cancun in the first place. The show values deeper understanding over surface-level feelings of superiority.

The most important character in “How To,” however, is New York City itself, and the show rewards those who live there. Familiar locations frequently make guest appearances. It’s thrilling seeing Chambers Street or even your own apartment building featured on screen. More exciting than the local places are the local people. The show interacts with all the strangers we see every day and actively ignore: those in crowds, on corners, and behind cash registers. On “How To,” Wilson follows the ideas of legendary urban theorist Jane Jacobs. They both recognize that a city is made up of people, not buildings. She also advocated for “eyes on the street” and “How To” is a show that is all about street watching. Each person we observe is a little part of NYC to be discovered, and each one lets us understand the city even better.

Just as “Citizen Kane” (1941) captures the events and emotions of a man’s entire life in two hours, “How To” encapsulates an entire city in six episodes. It reduces New York City to its essence: the people who inhabit it.