On Sunday, a show with the blandest title on television (“How To With John Wilson”) dedicated an episode to the most boring subject imaginable (scaffolding) and produced the most fascinating comedy I have seen in years.
This startlingly original new series, airing Sunday nights on HBO, has no stars or any kind of traditional story, and its main character, John Wilson, who co-writes, directs and narrates, stays offscreen. That it manages to be a poignant, hilarious and topical self-portrait is a small miracle.
Like the best art, “How To With John Wilson” defies categorization, but as a critic, I can’t resist. It joins a growing genre of documentary comedy, which uses tools of journalism (like interviews with real people) for comic ends. The most famous examples, like the work of Sacha Baron Cohen, have a streak of cruelty that is absent here. Wilson’s sensibility is more humane than harsh, poetic than prankish.
On the surface, he’s spoofing practical guides (“How to cook the perfect risotto” is the title of one episode), but that’s merely a framework for a multitude of digressions anchored in scenes of New York street life. His work resembles the remote segments produced by Merrill Markoe in the early years of “Late Night With David Letterman” and even more, the tender and wandering narratives of “Nathan for You,” whose star, Nathan Fielder, is a producer of Wilson’s show.
The show is far more abstract than either of those forerunners; it’s rooted in deep dives into idiosyncratic themes. Sunday’s episode examined the wood and metal structures erected throughout the city to protect people from getting hit on the head. Scaffolding seems like a mundane subject, but through close attention, Wilson proves otherwise, finding it to be a source of safety and danger, a blight and a work of art, a big business, a cinematic cliché and a symbol of paralysis. What really fascinates him about scaffolding, and the core preoccupation of the show, is how easily something short-term becomes permanent.
In a pocket history, Wilson explains how the death of one New Yorker in 1979 spawned an $8 billion a year industry that has built hundreds of miles of structures. Scaffolding workers, he argues, “do more to alter the landscape of New York than any other group.” He makes the point in myriad images, including a funny series of juxtapositions of famous buildings in movies versus real-world versions blanketed in metal rods and green wood that calls to mind the 2003 documentary essay “L.A. Plays Itself.” Wilson’s montages do what great chroniclers of the city accomplish: Make you see the familiar anew.
The comedy is desert-dry old school wit. His deadpan narration spoofs the voice of God of many documentaries, often mumbling, shifting gears, tripping over itself. His voice is gentle, even uncertain, as if he’s thinking aloud. He delights in mismatches: when he says “beloved businesses,” he shows a Chase bank. Some of the jokes are so oblique they’re easy to miss. When he’s denied entry to a scaffolding convention, Wilson says wryly: “I was crushed.”
There’s also humor out of magical realism. Wilson has a knack for finding bizarre and resonant moments in the everyday: An air-conditioner dangling from a window is as terrifying as a horror movie. A woman on a park bench calmly covered in birds is a still image from a child’s dream. An overweight man suddenly kicking the air flashes the grace of Bruce Lee.
These stunning shots, each packing a feature film of mystery into a few seconds, come and go with dizzying speed, and are presented almost offhandedly, his camerawork aiming for a vérité vibe. Early on, Wilson asks a stranger if he has strong thoughts on scaffolding and the response is a baffled no. Then the camera stays on him for an additional beat, adding a pointed awkwardness and poking fun at this entire enterprise.
At the core of the episode is an extremely relevant question for a moment when people are debating whether to take the train home for the holidays: What price safety? Everyone in New York is going to die, Wilson tells us at the start of the show, and there are times when he seems to be arguing that what began as a noble interest in avoiding injury is now driven primarily by business interests. Scaffolding obscures views, clutters streets and can even, when it breaks, kill. “You can waste your life playing it safe,” he says, “and the real danger is never what you expect it to be.”
But this is no polemic against safety measures. You can also find arguments for the beauty and necessity of scaffolding and hear from pedestrians sentimental about it. One has a B.D.S.M. story about it told with a matter-of-factness that feels quintessentially New York. There’s a healthy realism from a blind man who says scaffolding makes it more difficult to get around the city. “You work with what you got,” he adds, holding a stick to feel his way around.
Wilson is an entertainer and he isn’t trying to persuade. And while he makes it seem like he is just a lucky and persistent voyeur, an aimless wanderer who stumbles into these crazy stories and beautiful images, that is the real prank. Look closer and there is purpose in every shot. The home-movie aesthetic hides the instincts of a Hollywood showman.
The first thing Wilson shows us is a jarring image of a wire toppling over a Mercedes-Benz on the streets of New York and the final shot is of a skyscraper being blown up. That makes it sound like an action movie, but it’s more of an inaction movie, a meditation on the allure and perils of not changing.
By staying off camera, John Wilson makes the city seem like the focus, but the more you watch, the more prominent his voice becomes. He’s an unlikely romantic, one who sees excitement in tedium, beauty in trash and possibility everywhere. The show is more personal than political. Wilson emerges as an obsessive loner looking to make a connection. This becomes most evident in the sixth and final episode, when the crowded city streets transform as Covid-19 invades the picture and he becomes concerned about the health of his elderly landlord downstairs. We also see glimpses of his romantic life, but in Sunday’s episode, scaffolding is a metaphor for his own lack of commitment in his work life.
In one tangent, he explains how to survive in the city, he made money filming infomercials for products like Roast-Beef-atopia. He said he knew he was “helping to create some of the most grotesque content on the planet,” but justified it by saying it was only for a short time. Then he did it for five years.
Money jobs can operate like a kind of scaffolding, providing brief support, but stick with them long enough and they can become central to what you do and who you are. Life is funny like that, especially these days when security of any kind seems elusive and nothing is guaranteed. Toying with these darker currents, John Wilson seems melancholy but not despairing. He even finds hope in strange places, and an unexpected reminder: We are all ultimately temporary.