December 1, 2021

Television

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

By Craig Mathieson
Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

In today’s golden age of television, John Wilson is the rarest of viewing pleasures: a true original. The 35-year-old documentarian stitches together snatches of field footage, idiosyncratic interviews and quixotic excursions in order to forge a collage that begins with the comical but eventually hints at the cosmic. The first season of his show, How To with John Wilson (Binge), is an instructional guide too curious to stay on one subject. The fourth of the six half-hour episodes, “How to Cover Your Furniture”, begins with Wilson worrying about his cat scratching his sofa. It eventually takes in urban planning dynamics, a rumination on childhood possessions and a visit to a leading anti-circumcision advocate who is field-testing his foreskin-restoration device. Somehow this homespun series is both delightfully droll and genuinely moving.

Wilson is a native New Yorker and the city is his studio. Years spent on the streets with a camera in his hand have given the director a seemingly vast catalogue of material. Wilson might edit together a string of puns based on shop names, or a supercut of couples arguing in public; he has a keen eye for refuse, rats and eccentrics. “How to Make Small Talk” is a paean to the city’s fickleness and friction, complete with Wilson’s deadpan suggestions on how to engage with your ex when you visit them to retrieve a jumper. Wilson’s antecedents are identifiable – there’s a wisp of Wiseman, a pinch of Pynchon – but this obsessive chronicler has his own identity, equally borne out of online screen culture and an early job editing surveillance footage for a private investigator.

Wilson does not look like a gumshoe. He is bearded and nondescript, with a high, halting voice that suggests he views nearly everything one person might do with another as a dubious concept; if Wilson was a fictional character he’d be a disastrous blind date in a Noah Baumbach comedy. But through the camera he is never judgmental – people talk openly to him down the lens, unlikely bonds are formed. Wilson’s quests are essentially explorations of morality, but his style is anthropological. “How to Split the Check” is a fantastical progression that starts with raised eyebrows in restaurants and becomes a treatise on obtaining fairness that leads Wilson to an association dinner for football referees. The night descends into complaints, allegations of raffle fixing and minor looting, rendering Wilson’s search for equality into an absurdist classic. No one else on television is doing what Wilson does. It’s likely no one can.

The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+) is the antithesis of How To with John Wilson: two movie stars in Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd as the leads, exorbitant production values and an offbeat concept that never quite clicks. Adapted by Succession writer Georgia Pritchett from a popular 2019 podcast of the same name, it charts how a New York psychiatrist, Dr Isaac Herschkopf (Rudd), essentially annexed the life of a patient, Martin Markowitz (Ferrell). The narrative is based on real events, but the investigatory angle of the podcast (host Joe Nocera lived next door to Herschkopf) is replaced by a mellow chronology that moves awkwardly between psychological drama and black comedy. The limited series is intrigued by Jewish-American tradition and the casting of the wondrous Kathryn Hahn as Martin’s sister, Phyllis, but it can’t commit to a lasting viewpoint and the two movie stars rarely give complementary performances.

The original Cowboy Bebop, a Japanese anime that debuted in 1998, is now so revered as one of animation’s finest television series that making a live action adaptation seems like the creative version of pointing a loaded gun at your foot. Faced with dutiful recreation or wild reinterpretation, 2021’s Cowboy Bebop (Netflix) opts for the former, rendering a crew of bounty hunters wisecracking and pistol-whipping their away across a galaxy defined by deadpan dystopia. The tone mixes and matches science-fiction, neo-noir and spaceship western, complete with blaring angles that feel directly lifted from the source material. (Netflix has also added episodes of the anime, for those wanting to compare closely.) But the best thing going for the debut season is Star Trek’s John Cho as Spike Spiegel, the unruffled anti-hero with Miami Vice threads and Steve McQueen’s detachment. In a story that is running to merely stand still, Cho strolls his way to success.

In brief: The latest Marvel movie spin-off is Hawkeye (Disney+), where Jeremy Renner’s legendary assassin has to survive Christmas in New York and an overly enthusiastic protégé (Hailee Steinfeld) in an action-comedy whose small stakes strive for playfulness but instead feel inconsequential. The Wheel of Time (Amazon) is a mediaeval fantasy epic complete with the forces of good and evil in conflict, a cross-section of fantastical creatures and magical protagonists, but its sense of pacing is so torpid that its Tolkien-lite clichés calcify. Peter Jackson’s Get Back (Disney+) is a treasure trove for Beatles obsessives, an eight-hour documentary series that inhabits the three weeks the quartet spent making their final studio album, 1970’s Let It Be. With its songwriting minutiae and musical detail, it’s a paean to intimacy and authenticity, yet the considerable digital rendering of the original 16mm footage is sometimes slick and deprived of humanity.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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