How To with John Wilson: a profoundly funny documentary

This offbeat series, which counts Nathan Fielder among its executive producers, reaches surprising and often philosophical conclusions about certain aspects of the human condition.

How To with John Wilson (2020-21)

When William Blake suggested the ability to see a world in a grain of sand, he could well have been prophesying the eventual formulation of How To with John Wilson some two centuries later. Quite unlike the majority of what appears on TV screens today, this humorous documentary series manages to plumb the depths of lived experience in delightfully 25-minute morsels. It does so by obsessively attempting to understand a selection of ostensibly banal or commonplace problems facing New Yorkers, and its two six-episode HBO seasons have finally made their way onto UK screens thanks to the BBC.

The premise is simple: each episode has a title beginning with the words ‘How To…’, which posits that what follows will be helpful guidance as to how to navigate a relatively insignificant, but recognisable, issue of everyday life: How to Throw Out Your Batteries; How to Put Up Scaffolding. In searching for answers to his questions, however, Wilson comes to make strange discoveries, meet fascinating and sometimes bizarre individuals, and reach surprising and often philosophical conclusions about some aspects of the human condition. From considering the best way to learn more about wine, so as to feel less self-conscious when buying it as a gift, Wilson goes on a quixotic adventure that leads him to reflect on our desire to fit in, where that comes from and whether it ultimately works.

Of course, there have been all manner of documentaries over the years that take an apparently trivial – or even silly – subject and locate great pathos within it. What makes How To… such a triumph, beyond the brevity of each episode’s discrete narrative arc, is its winning form. With an expertly constructed montage paired with a deliberately eccentric but endlessly curious voiceover from Wilson, it’s nigh-on impossible not to be sucked down even the most mundane rabbit holes. Wilson films compulsively, and the footage featured in the show has taken several years to amass. It’s edited with a brilliant awareness of rhythm and a meticulous eye for a visual gag. As Wilson delivers a single line of awkward narration in a stilted and searching tone, the accompanying images take on myriad roles. They can reflect what is being described one minute and undermine it the next. They act as metaphors, regularly playing on words, sometimes explicitly amusing in themselves though often landing on less tangible but funnier allusions than expected. It makes How To… as compelling in the specific, hilarious moment as it then becomes across its profound episodes and seasons.

► How To with John Wilson is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now.