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With “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto,” the sixth episode of its first season, HBO’s How To With John Wilson made a transition from quirky, affectionate oddity to one of 2020’s best TV shows. Plenty have tried, but no installment of TV has so poignantly and amusingly captured the discordant jumble of communal alienation that emerged in the earliest days of the COVID pandemic.
That episode and its effectiveness came organically from documentarian Wilson’s particular brand of meandering inquisitiveness, but I don’t think anybody, including Wilson himself, would tell you that it was reproducible. That makes it not a criticism, but an accepted inevitability, that the second season of How To With John Wilson doesn’t feature an episode intended to be or capable of being the new version of “Risotto.” And once you accept — yes, this is sounding a little like John Wilson-style narration — that How To With John Wilson hasn’t miraculously cracked the code to making the year’s best TV episode every single week, it’s easy to still appreciate that the show’s second season is generally smoother and more confident in its storytelling approach than the first; it’s less an unexpected treasure, but still capable of surprising.
How To with John Wilson
Airdate: 10 p.m. Friday, November 26
If my fairly relentless praise of How To With John Wilson didn’t get you to watch the first season, here’s the brief pitch: Wilson is a filmmaker who has kicked around the fringes of the New York media for years, doing little unscripted projects, private commissions and apparently even popping up on some shows himself. All the while, he’s traversed his way around New York City with a camera running, capturing the mundane and spectacular aspects of everyday life. It’s entirely observational and, one can only assume, daunting in its unedited scope.
In How To With John Wilson, executive produced by and in the thematic vein of Nathan Fielder, Wilson begins each episode with a seemingly simple, probably banal, thing he’s interested in. In addition to the aforementioned risotto, a conundrum that was as literal and metaphorical as all of Wilson’s queries tend to be, the first season found Wilson pondering Gotham’s ubiquitous scaffolding, the social niceties of splitting a check, memory enhancement and the process of and reasons for covering your furniture. Every episode is stitched together from Wilson’s vérité footage, loving glimpses of people, places and things with either direct, ironic or fundamentally silly connections to the topic at hand.
In each case, though, the mere how-to of the title is just a gateway for autobiographical exploration, interviews with other people who share his fascinations and, eventually, big-picture meditations on urban life or wide-reaching psychology. That’s how Wilson’s attempts to make his landlady a plate of risotto gradually unfurled into an examination of the little kindnesses that kept people in isolation clinging to sanity in the spring of 2020.
Smartly limited to six episodes as well, the second season looks on the surface to feature advice on topics ranging from proper disposal of batteries to wine appreciation to — seemingly as a companion to the memory episode from the first season — 30 minutes that start by pondering the process of recalling your dreams. The pandemic, which gave clout to the first season finale, is acknowledged only in passing.
Although Wilson hasn’t decided to impose a complicated mythology or serialized structure to his adventures in the Wilson-verse, he honors his landlady’s status as the first season’s breakout character by giving her a role in two episodes. And although there’s no indication that the first season, however acclaimed it was, has turned Wilson into a celebrity — his on-camera appearances are sufficiently restricted that even fans of the show could probably see him on the street without recognizing him — he’s occasionally leveraging the power that comes from HBO adjacency to get access to certain venues and, apparently, a mortgage. That doesn’t mean anybody exactly understands what Wilson is doing.
Even Wilson isn’t always sure, though his description of “It’s kinda like memoir/essay and it takes place in New York” is a more efficient description than I gave. The second season is more assured in following that memoir/essay structure. His own story is situated more clearly, whether it’s introducing viewers to his embarrassing first film Jingle Berry — mentioned now on his Wikipedia page in an edit we watch him make — and his history with a cappella, which leads to a twist I wouldn’t dare spoil.
The finessing of these individual essays from their starting point through different detours and leading up to broader thematic observations is more elegant as well. I can’t say for sure if the added polish is in any way connected to an expanded writing staff that includes, of all people, Susan Orlean. But since Wilson absolutely feels like the sort of unorthodox obsessive who Orlean might build a book or at least a chapter of a book around, seeing her name at the end of episodes is less unexpected than you might initially imagine.
Wilson is, as a personality, too amusingly strange and socially awkward for How To With John Wilson to ever truly be “conventional.” His approach to wine and learning to understand its aromas will always be accompanied by a montage of dynamically photographed vomit on the sidewalk. He’ll always find the right and most earnestly respectful (but still funny) use for, among other things, a support group for fans of the movie Avatar or more random and unexpected celebrity cameos. His open interviewing style and his visits to locations or businesses tied to his themes give the show the feeling of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood if Fred Rogers was an introverted voyeur, his neighborhood was Queens and Mr. Rogers’ greatest concern was finding a parking place in front of his apartment.
Still, the extra layer of artfulness occasionally makes Wilson’s conclusions seem a little less revelatory and a little less snatched out of nowhere. You can trace his thoughts more clearly and even periodically guess where an episode is going. That’s not such a bad thing. These six new episodes maybe didn’t emotionally level me like “How To Cook the Perfect Risotto” did, but they’re all funny, eye-opening, unifying portraits of curiosity and How To With John Wilson is still a special show.
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