How to with John Wilson

TV review by
Marina Gordon, Common Sense Media
How to with John Wilson TV Poster Image
Offbeat docuseries has nudity, language, mature themes.

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 1 review

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Positive Messages

In an era when most people on the streets are heads-down on their mobile phones, Wilson shows viewers what they're missing when they ignore the world around them, as messy as it may be. Look up, he seems to be saying, take a look around, connect with the people here.

Positive Role Models

Wilson interviews a lot of people who, if encountered in the real world, we might scurry past -- the partiers at MTV Spring Break, the anti-circumcision activist, the "Mandela Effect" conspiracy theorists -- but he gives us glimpses into their lives that flesh them out.

Violence

The visuals in the series are composed largely of candid shots on the streets of New York, which can get messy. In the first episode, we see police or other investigators collecting evidence from a bloody street scene, with no context. We also see a body bag being removed -- and dropped briefly -- from a building.

Sex

Though completely unsexy, we see an anti-circumcision activist try to "regrow" his foreskin, and Wilson showcases his cringy methods in lengthy shots in episode 4 ("How to Cover Your Furniture"). There are many tongue-in-cheek porn allusions and one actual porn scene (episode 2, "How to Put Up Scaffolding"). One man describes a sexual experience in detail in the same episode.

Language

"F--k" is both seen written and spoken, and "s--t" is used.

Consumerism

The messages here are largely anti-consumerist. Wilson gently pokes fun at the anxiety that owning expensive possessions can bring.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

In episode one, young people drink copious amounts of alcohol, and one young man smokes marijuana. Throughout the series we see people smoking or vaping, and Wilson talks about his own vaping habit and attempts to quit in episode six.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that How to with John Wilson is a six-episode series with deceptive titles. Filmmaker John Wilson's benign, monotone narration is set against images and interviews that can be jarring. In episode 1, "How to Make Small Talk," for example, Wilson makes observations that are often juxtaposed with images that contradict or are extreme versions of the narration. "Sharing your most intimate thoughts with someone can be a disturbing and messy experience," Wilson says, while showing police tending to the bloody aftermath of presumed violence in a subway station. Later in the same episode, Wilson travels to Cancun where MTV Spring Break is in full swing (expect copious alcohol consumption, provocative dancing in swimsuits) and he connects with a lonely young man who smokes marijuana and talks about his friend's recent suicide. In episode 2, a brief clip from a porno is shown, and in episode 4 a man who is trying to regrow his foreskin is shown in detail that leaves nothing to the imagination.

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What's the story?

HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON is almost impossible to describe. Viewers catch only brief glimpses of Wilson, a 30-something lifelong New Yorker and obsessive videographer. Instead, we see what he and his camera have captured over two years of filming -- people on the streets, in stores, on vacation, working, playing, and in the final episode, responding to a pandemic. He shoots his cat, rats, mice, dogs on the street, a skunk in a bank lobby, signs, cars -- anything that could add to the feeling of chaos and mundanity that define New York. From that footage he compiled six episodes that start with each title's premise but then meander into unexpected and often deeply affecting detours.

Is it any good?

Who will like this? Adults and mature teens who love or hate New York, people who miss human contact or interaction, people who want to move through the world with their eyes open. Who shouldn't watch How to with John Wilson? Viewers who just have shows run in the background (unless using it as a sleep aid), people who are averse to cognitive dissonance, literalists. Wilson's episodes only noddingly adhere to their titles in their first minutes -- from there, he takes viewers on journeys that can be shocking, heartwarming, illuminating, and just plain weird.

The "How to Cover Your Furniture" episode detours into a visit with a man trying to regrow his foreskin, and the "How to Improve Your Memory" episode veers into a "Mandela Effect" conference in Idaho that helps explain how conspiracy theories take hold. The final episode, "How to Make Perfect Risotto," shot at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, becomes a meditation on how much has changed during these times, and how important it is to maintain connections with the other people in our lives. This unique show, that fits into no existing boxes, seems particularly appropriate for a time when so many are rethinking where and how we fit in the world. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what they expect from documentaries. How does How to with John Wilson subvert those expectations?

  • How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will be depicted in future TV shows and movies? What do you think you'd want to see, and what do you think we never need to see again?

TV details

  • Premiere date: October 23, 2020
  • Cast: John Wilson
  • Network: HBO Max
  • Genre: Reality TV
  • TV rating: TV-MA
  • Available on: Streaming
  • Last updated: August 16, 2021

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