“Hey, New York.” The simple but calming first words spoken at the start of every episode of the HBO docuseries How to deal with John Wilson might not initially sound poetic. This is, after all, a fairly common greeting. It’s a simple hello to the city where the show is taking place. However, the words spoken by the host of the show, John wilson itself, serving as the start of what is a sweet yet glorious guide through the world unlike anything else you’ll see on TV.
Produced by Nathan Fielder of Nathan for you, who graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with outstanding grades, the show premiered in October 2020 and recently completed its second season. The show has already garnered critical acclaim for its blend of heartfelt and humorous thoughts that surprise you with their depth. It’s a quality that comes not only from the way Wilson thinks about the world, but also how he’s able to bring us into his vision in a very unique way.
For those unfamiliar with, Wilson’s vision begins in a generally unsuccessful way that only grows and expands as each episode continues. It’s a demonstration of the power of how, when you curate seemingly disconnected yet distinctive shots, you create something that comes to life in the form of a whole new experience. Designed to be a how-to guide, on everything from parking to investing in real estate, these tasks only serve as the entry point for every expansive adventure Wilson takes us on. The real estate episode has moments of genuine humor like when Wilson tries to get a loan using popular Twitter reviews of his various celebrity show to win over a bewildered loan officer at a bank.
It turns bittersweet when, by some miracle, he manages to get the loan approved and ends up buying the house from his former owner with whom he had formed a loving relationship. It’s all part of how Wilson’s framing of the story creates moments of deep and unexpected emotion at every turn. This is framed in the emotional sense of tone and the technical sense of what Wilson is showing us. It is this subtle craft that can go largely unnoticed but deserves to be recognized for its mastery of creating meaning from the most mundane things of everyday life.
What Wilson has managed to create is a hybrid of something that feels like a video essay and a documentary, if even that seems reductive. It is a work of art that resembles a dream landscape, a flow of consciousness that remains precisely edited and rhythmic to create maximum impact. You can see Wilson perfecting this approach to storytelling in short films he has created and published on his Vimeo. He offers insight into the style he would both master and develop in How to deal with John Wilson.
It’s this style that creates an experience that plays out like an extended cinematic riff that explores the possibility of the Kuleshov effect, a theory that more meaning can be created from two shots than a single taken in isolation. Wilson takes this to the limit with his own precise sensibility, drawing poetic meanings from two otherwise totally disconnected planes that become a whole. Every moment he does so excites and electrifies audiences as we witness an act of creation before our very eyes. He creates something new with each cut, bringing together disparate images that are reborn into something new.
Everything comes together brilliantly to create a visual poetry of its own. In the Season 2 premiere, a photo of someone with a computer screen on the ground with a leash cord and a panel in a basement window that says “caveman” are spliced together to creating an absurd connection that always feels quite appropriate. They’re connected through Wilson’s storytelling, coming together to talk about the humor of aging and the milestones we’ve reached. Later in that same episode, when Wilson is taken to a new milestone in buying a house, he uses the expressions of similar buildings to describe his own inner emotional state. It’s further interesting that Wilson’s face is rarely seen on the show, letting him tap into the world around him to express his emotions. This forces him to research what are probably thousands of shots and visuals, some only appearing for a few seconds before moving on to the next.
In my favorite episode, which is also the last episode of this season, Wilson explains how to be spontaneous. He demonstrates the struggling feelings he has personally in doing this, showing a close-up of a statue of mascot Ronald McDonald with his permanently frozen smile to indicate how making plans can initially seem “easy enough”. Wilson then cuts to a wide one, showing how the mascot is actually in a fenced area as he explains how you can start to feel trapped once you’ve made a shot.
We are then taken to a random person staring in front of Wilson as Wilson bemoans the mundane details of making the plans. This is followed by another seemingly dreaming person, a sign of Wilson’s desire to escape the plans. This is then followed by a quick shot of a concrete mixer dumping its contents, a visual representation of the suggestion to pretend to be sick to get out of a shot.
None of these plans is particularly interesting in isolation. They are even downright boring, seemingly insignificant. Yet when Wilson brings them together, they become more isolated than they have ever been. They become a personal reflection of our guide’s anxieties, an outward physical manifestation of his inner fears. It is an experiential cinema, a way of weaving poetic reflections on life in the very moments that might otherwise go unnoticed. By capturing them and bringing them together, Wilson shapes them into something immortal that becomes vital to our own experiences.
At the time of this writing, it is not clear whether How to deal with John Wilson will get another season. He deserves one and would only find beauty in the unexpected corners of life. While there may not be one, what is certain is that Wilson’s vision is unlike anything else. The more you watch what he achieves by soaking up the world around him and drawing connections from it, the more it all becomes a poetic meditation on what connects us. It’s a technical marvel, playing with our psyche and opening up neural pathways of experience that no other show has done quite like it. This ensures that the phrase “Hey, New York” will always be remembered as a sign that you are in the hands of a master craftsman with unlimited cinematic potential.
It’s not TV, it’s HBO Max.
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