Arts·Warm Blanket

In unclear times, How To with John Wilson showed me how to see the world with sharper eyes

The endearingly silly HBO docuseries helped Carly Maga find beauty in the mundane.

The endearingly silly HBO docuseries helped Carly Maga find beauty in the mundane

How To with John Wilson. (HBO)

Warm Blanket is a series of personal essays from Canadian writers and artists reflecting on the pop culture that has brought them comfort and coziness during one year of the pandemic.

In a pandemic, you live your life from behind a protective barrier: a mask, a plexiglass panel, an apartment window, your bubble. It's for our own good, of course — if anything they should be thicker. But it's undoubtedly one of the hardest parts about this incredibly weird, stressful, and uncomfortable time: being cut off from the rest of the world. Especially if you're used to living in a city, filled with people going about their days separately, but together.

But this isn't new for everyone. Take filmmaker John Wilson, the creator, writer and director of the new HBO show How To with John Wilson. In each of the six 30-minute episodes in season one, Wilson gives his audience a tutorial of sorts, attempting to solve an issue affecting his life — his inability to have small talk, how to protect his furniture from the claws of his cat Baby, how to make the perfect risotto for his landlord known affectionately as "Mama" (pronounced "ma-MAH") — which inevitably veers into bigger existential issues about how humans exist in the world, from our futile attempts to control public space to our fear of death. As our narrator and guide, the show is a trip through John Wilson's brain. But he's surprisingly absent visually; even if we do get a rare glimpse of his reflection in a mirror or a window, his face is mostly hidden. Even a Google image search keeps his face mostly obscured. This is because, so it seems, Wilson voluntarily lives most of his life from behind a protective barrier: the lens of his camera. 

In episode four, "How to Cover Your Furniture," an observant interior decorator tells Wilson this about his camera: "It's a paradox. I think it has connected you more than ever with people, but yet there's always a bit of a separation, a bit of you that's apart from it." There are aspects about the pandemic that can be liberating, for sure — the ease of working from home if you're able, connecting with family in distant areas over Zoom. But it's not it. It's not how we remember living. 

How To with John Wilson. (HBO)

Wilson doesn't hide the fact that he can be emotionally cut off from his closest relationships, or that he overcompensates for what he sees as shortcomings with eccentric coping mechanisms. But this is where we benefit as viewers. We don't see much of Wilson himself, but we do get a look at the way he sees New York City and its incredible filth, strange characters, and other inhospitable elements — which is to say, with great fondness.

Wilson once trained under a private investigator, editing hours and hours of banal footage down to its most incriminating moments. With How To, he does the opposite — editing hours and hours of banal footage down to its most divine moments, especially when placed into the context of the episode's arc. In every frame, Wilson uses an image (a tarp blowing in the wind, a rat peeking from a pile of garbage, a woman covered in pigeons, a couple sitting in silence) as a visual metaphor for whatever his written script is articulating. The only thing more impressive than Wilson spending two years filming the streets of New York City to create this show is the fact that it only took two years to get the kind of footage he gets. The bracing scenes Wilson captures — including moments as delightful as Kyle McLaughlin (yes, of Twin Peaks and Sex and the City) haplessly trying to swipe his MetroCard in the subway, and as dark as paramedics accidentally dropping a body as they exit a brownstone — are a testament to his eye for catching the details that everyone else misses.

Shots from a pre-pandemic urban setting would be strange enough to an audience that hasn't been able to get out of the house in months, but Wilson has a knack for leaning into the awkward and uncomfortable (in a way that calls to mind Nathan for You — it's not surprising that Nathan Fielder is an executive producer), which results in wildly intimate interactions in some less-than-ideal environments. Underpinning it all is Wilson's empathy, and he trains his camera on all his subjects, inanimate and alive, with a profound sense of innocence.

John Wilson is not the first artist to find poetry in a piece of pizza rotting on the sidewalk, but he may be the only one to do so six months into a global pandemic. And since it landed on HBO in late October, I've been thankful to be able to supplement my own barriered existence with John Wilson's — not only as a love letter to city life as we used to know it, but also as a reminder that when modern life feels strange and unmanageable, that strangeness existed all around us before and we never blinked an eye. We needed a show like How To with John Wilson to help us find the beauty in the mundane again — and after this past year, we won't take it for granted again.

Read all 12 essays from the Warm Blanket series here.


Carly Maga is a Calgarian-to-be by way of Toronto and Ottawa. She has been a freelance arts writer and critic for over 10 years and served as theatre critic for The Toronto Star since 2015. She also sometimes teaches others how to be a critic too.

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