TV’s most unpredictable series? Its final season proves it’s so much more

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In How To Clean Your Ears, the second episode of the third, and final, season of his HBO docuseries How To with John Wilson, the titular filmmaker finds himself in a typically bizarre encounter with an interview subject. Ostensibly talking to a woman to get her view on the noise pollution that overruns New York, the conversation shifts when she casually mentions she’s known two serial killers in her life: one who she dated, and another “who did work for the government”. “Sorry, I’m kind of hung up on this,” Wilson interrupts the woman after she’s returned to her rant about noise. “You dated a serial killer?”

It’s the sort of situation Wilson, with his affable and disarming energy, has found himself in often across the series, where a simple line of questioning takes an unexpected detour into unimaginable absurdity. Personally, I don’t understand why people trust a stranger with a camera to begin with, but how does he get them to open so candidly?

“I mean, people just have a lot on their mind,” Wilson deadpans over Zoom, speaking from his apartment in New York, albeit in front of a virtual background of a burnt-out living room. “Once they’ve accepted terms with the camera, you just kind of let it roll until they don’t want to talk anymore.”

The third, and final, season of cult docuseries How To with John Wilson is its most remarkable yet.Credit: HBO/Binge

These bizarre tangents have made How To with John Wilson one of the most consistently surprising, and surprisingly profound, TV series of recent years. Driven by Wilson’s keen eye for nonsense and open-hearted curiosity to follow an adventure wherever it might go, an episode might start as an exploration into “how to make small talk” and end with Wilson at MTV’s Spring Break in Cancun, chatting about death poolside with a white rapper he randomly met in the hotel lobby, as happened on the show’s debut episode which aired in October 2020.

At this point, the first question most would ask a creative who’s ending their Emmy-nominated TV show three seasons in is “why now?,” but the answers already feel nested within the final season’s six episodes, I tell Wilson.

“Oh yeah, you think so?” he replies half-disinterestedly, his eyes drifting off-screen after a long day of press.

John Wilson: “This was my experience doing it, that you may not feel that much different when you get to the other side of the rainbow, you know?”Credit: HBO/Binge

The six episodes play like a personal meditation on creative frustration. The opener How to Find a Public Restroom sees part of Wilson’s footage, shot during a chance detour to Burning Man, blocked by the festival’s professional team over a licensing disagreement with HBO. In the incredible fifth episode How to Watch Birds, Wilson touches on the challenge of having to up the ante across each season’s bewildering swerves, of being caged by viewers – including late-night host Jimmy Kimmel – increasingly questioning him about what’s real or not.

So, has the project become a bit of a burden to Wilson?

He laughs. “No, it’s not like… No, it’s my favourite thing in the world to do, there’s no question about that. It’s more… There was a point of anxiety I thought was interesting to pry open, and see how far I could take it. It’s like, I don’t ever want the imagery to become stale; I don’t want the quality of the memoir material to ever feel forced,” says Wilson. “I knew that by making this the last season I’d be able to unlock a handful of things I wanted to either reveal or confront, and to talk about the way the show has affected my life socially and professionally.”

The season’s exploration of creative success is fascinating, considering Wilson’s filmmaking background. He studied film at Binghamton University in New York, inspired by experimental filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas and Caveh Zahedi, whose works traverse the space between personal memoir and nonfiction.

“I love Jonas’ stuff,” says Wilson. “It’s a lot more unpolished but I love the spirit behind it: you’re just shooting without purpose and then you turn it into collage, or you use it like some kind of elevated home video. And Caveh’s stuff, I’ve always really admired the brutal honesty he uses in his work.”

Now 36, Wilson had been making his How To films – with their ironic eye and unique mix of free association and memoir – well before HBO. His first How To film, How To Live with Bed Bugs, was made 13 years ago as a lark to entertain his then roommates.

“We would have this collective, painful situation, like with bed bugs, and I wanted to make these movies just so it wasn’t a net loss,” Wilson recalls. “This awful stuff happened and I turned it into something productive and that made me feel good, and it’s like, well, if that bad thing didn’t happen then the good thing wouldn’t have happened, you know?”

By necessity, the work was a “one-man band situation”, says Wilson, because he couldn’t afford to pay anybody to help and didn’t want to ask for favours. “But after a while, working within this format, I kind of realised there was a richness to this style that maybe didn’t have to change.”

Nathan Fielder, whose groundbreaking Comedy Central series Nathan For You had earned him an overall deal with HBO, admired Wilson’s work and used his clout to bring Wilson to the network. “We made a pilot, and they bought it. I was so surprised I think I initially said I was gonna get a face tattoo if HBO gave me a show,” Wilson recalls. “But then I never really did.”

“Hello, New York…“: How To’s final season plays like a personal meditation on creative frustration.Credit: HBO/Binge

In the final season’s middle episodes, How to Work Out and How to Watch the Game, Wilson looks with ambivalence at where his filmmaking career’s taken him – attending the Emmys, sharing spaces with Martha Stewart – and revels in the tight-knit camaraderie he finds at a vacuum cleaner convention. It seems like a metaphor for his growing discomfort with the Hollywood of it all, or the bigger commercial platform and attention his work has had to contend with?

“I’m not against having a big platform, it was more like – what’s the word? – I was just trying to unpack these strange feelings I was having about, like, being at these hollow corporate events and stuff like that,” Wilson explains. “It was more like I felt I needed to do certain things because this is what you do when you reach a certain level.

“It’s just a little kernel [of discomfort],” Wilson continues. “And I feel it’s relatable to anyone that has ambitions to follow a similar path. It’s like, this was my experience doing it, that you may not feel that much different when you get to the other side of the rainbow, you know?”

What started as a one-man band has become an intricate operation. In How To’s second season, Wilson had bestselling author Susan Orlean among the show’s writers; this season, Steven Soderbergh is listed as a “consultant”. What does that even mean?

“Well, I originally reached out to Soderbergh because I wanted part of the Birds episode to kind of evolve into this thriller, and so I sent him the script,” says Wilson. “We talked it over, and he gave me some pyrotechnics advice.”

The series’ final episode is remarkable, and the less revealed the better. But it achieves a poignancy that plays like a heady metaphor for a filmmaker understanding when it’s time to quit, when it’s time to mollify the ego. Wilson already has ideas for other projects but, “out of superstition”, would prefer to avoid specifics.

“I think it’ll probably be kind of essay-based and, I mean, nonfiction is still my favourite area to work in. I don’t know if it’s done independently or with HBO or with another kind of finance, I’m still trying to figure it out… But I’m not done making stuff in this style. It may change names, but I don’t think I could help myself from continuing to make stuff like it.”

The third (and final) season of How To with John Wilson is available to stream on Binge from Saturday, with new episodes dropping every week.

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