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How To With John Wilson season 3 review: A funny, probing, brilliant sendoff

The HBO docuseries bows out with a unique meditation on what it means to live in public right now

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How To With John Wilson
How To With John Wilson
Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Wilson

Every episode of How To With John Wilson, which kicks off its third and final season July 28 on HBO, opens with a key, if unassuming, greeting: “Hey, New York.” Wilson, who narrates every episode of his nonfiction series culled from hours and hours of footage shot (mostly) in the Big Apple, makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s long hoped to have a conversation with his fellow city dwellers. His Emmy-nominated docuseries, in fact, couldn’t exist without them. Not just as interlocutors but as fodder for the many thrilling scenes Wilson captures and uses to spin episodes as absurd-sounding as “How To Find A Public Restroom” and “How To Clean Your Ears.”

To the uninitiated: Despite its title, How To With John Wilson is only nominally a helpful guide to everyday living. Sure, every episode is seemingly designed to unearth some findings on how to navigate relatively mundane things (see above). But Wilson’s eye and mind have a wandering sensibility. And so, visually stitched up from all of that footage taken (mostly) by himself on his personal camera (and sometimes iPhone), this series plays like an essayistic meditation on what it means to live in public in the 21st century. And no one lives more publicly—more in public—than New Yorkers.


But don’t mistake Wilson for a David Attenborough of the human experience. While there is an anthropological curiosity in the way he captures, say, various New Yorkers in varying degrees of embarrassment in regards to their public hygiene hijinks (say, flossing, clipping toenails, picking their nose, on the street or on the subway), Wilson’s neurotic banter has long framed his interest less in showing you the ordinary than in finding the extraordinary—even when such extraordinary people, spaces, competitions, etc. are grounded in the most ordinary of pursuits.


And so, while How To With John Wilson is an admirable catalog of all things New York (and its final episode all but feels like a love letter to that city, albeit one misplaced by the United States Postal Service and delivered haphazardly and maybe all too late), the series has always come off like a larger meditation on what it means to really observe the world around us. The visual wordplay Wilson so enjoys deploying throughout (shots of cement being poured into the sidewalk flash before you as Wilson talks about the city’s sewer system; a shot of various gloves left out to dry as Wilson talks about things “getting out of hand”) forces viewers of his show to find comfort in those defamiliarized images. Wilson makes New York City normalcy feel decidedly worthy of consideration, of attention.

With such a vision (in all senses of the word), Wilson has crafted a perfect season of television that caps off a project years in the making. While season one found Wilson adapting his shooting and editing style to fit a half-hour cable slot, and his second emboldening his vision with an eye toward more season-long storytelling arcs, this third batch sees him painting an even more ambitious portrait of a city, of a people, of a time. For there’s no denying that more so than its previous seasons, this final foray into equally funny and probing “How To” guides flirts continually with mortality, as if Wilson himself were feeling like he was running out of time and eager to find ways of making his work last.

This season alone, for instance, finds him randomly talking with folks who’ve dated serial killers, cops who may have fudged a thing or two in their day for the better good (in an episode that thrills for its bait-and-switch approach to veracity in a post-The Rehearsal world), believers who wish to have their bodies (or just heads) cryogenically frozen, and people who worry about the health effects of their electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

How To With John Wilson | Official Trailer | HBO

Equally as eager to make a quick visual gag as he is to muse on why and how we crave community in a seemingly fragmented world, Wilson is a master at work all throughout this farewell season. Few filmmakers could spin a tale about ear hygiene, noise, and neighborly values into an unexpectedly poignant self-examination on why Wilson still keeps quiet during sex. Or freely pepper confessional moments (like a certain middle-school sexual experience) into an episode all about the ways we’ve grown to use sports as a crutch for modern sociability. The personal and the professional, the private and the public, the mundane and the bizarre constantly clash and commingle in each episode, with everything from toilets and vacuums to pumpkins and packages leading to increasingly compassionate (though not any less deranged) portraits of niche communities that would feel surreal were they not so authentically captured by Wilson’s deadpan gaze.


And yes, we’ll forever mourn the Burning Man episode we’d have gotten had Wilson and HBO been able to secure filming permits for the 2022 iteration of that Black Rock City gathering (as we learn in this premiere episode), which sounds like it had given the Emmy-nominated documentarian the chance to examine the many threads this final season was weaving. But perhaps that lost footage in itself can stand for the ephemerality that Wilson has always tried to capture, and which looms so large over a project that by its own definition requires constant surveillance.

How To With John Wilson season three premieres July 28 on HBO