Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 6: How to With John Wilson made the most of this disaster of a year.

How To With John Wilson
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO.

The 2020 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, the Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang, and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.

Hello sisters in screens,

I feel How to With John Wilson being lobbed in my direction and I will gladly take this ball and run with it. Of course, if this were a scene from How To we’d be watching a short clip of me, an anonymous woman, in the park playing catch. And rather than handily catching a ball and returning it, I’d be throwing someone a raw fish, and Wilson’s narration would explain that sometimes life throws you things you’re not expecting and you have to figure out how to go with the flow.

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How To was probably the thing I watched this year that surprised me the most. In a world of The Queen’s Gambit and The Undoing and The Vow—shows that, whatever else you thought about them, were stubbornly unsurprising in most respects—the sensation of watching something utterly unexpected felt like stumbling onto a treasure trove. It’s not that How To isn’t predictable in its own way. (As my stupid little fish-in-the-park image demonstrates, it’s an easy show to imagine parodying.) But the series is a distinctive combination of found footage, documentary-style surveys of human behavior, comedy, and personal essay. That project really surprised me!

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It’s also the rare show to truly figure out how to benefit from this disaster of a year, how to turn COVID into a narrative opportunity. The last episode of How To, in which Wilson threads his relationship with his landlord, his decision to quit smoking, and the sudden arrival of a global pandemic together with the process of learning how to make risotto? Phew. When I asked him about the episode, he told me that he feels that most TV has pointed its camera in the wrong direction, at least when it comes to trying to document the feeling of this year. His analogy was to footage from 9/11. Watching film of the towers falling is one thing; watching clips of people on the street, staring in disbelief at that same image of the towers falling on a TV in their building lobby is entirely different, and so much more human.

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So How To’s finale points its camera in similarly odd angles. It is a document of very small things: an Uber with boxes of tissue taped to the door handles, a man struggling to wrap caution tape around the tables inside a Burger King, of a grocery store aisle emptied of everything except for a few cans of Beanie Weenies. Maybe I should not have been so surprised at how effective it is to tell a COVID story through such small-scale images, but I was. And I was so grateful for it, to have a show that did actually feel like a meaningful translation of what this spring felt like rather than falling back on gags about hand sanitizer and how you can’t get your Zoom call to work.

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That’s why it made my Top 10 of the year list—that final wallop. But I do think it’d have been a strong contender even without the finale, and it’s again because of that sense of surprise. What other show gave us nature documentary-esque footage of mankind in its urban environment, and in this specific case, the man was Kyle MacLachlan and the urban environment was failing to get his subway card to swipe? (Maybe my love for that moment is unreasonable. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been entombed in my house in New Jersey since February, and I miss my occasional commute to New York so much that a malfunctioning subway turnstile makes me feel nostalgic.)

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This is probably related to the comfort TV conversation, inevitably. How much is narrative surprise something we can value in this moment, when most of the real-world surprises are terrible? How To’s breadth of scale makes its surprises feel more poignant but also more manageable. It takes place on a human level I know how to process, but it’s also about a mass of anonymous humanity in a way that helps buffer its intense, overwhelming swoops between life and death the heat death of the universe but also having a comfortable chair.

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It’s also related to the conversation about picking TV to pieces, probably for the traffic but also for the exercise of it. I completely understand your exhaustion with that model, Willa, and your sense that it gets farther and farther away from the big questions about a show that actually matter, in the end. I understand, but I do not relate. In my happiest moments I am writing an absurdly, lavishly unnecessary close read of the ten seconds when Kyle MacLachlan fails to get through a turnstile.

Having thrown myself this fish and then also caught it, I wonder if we can move on to Willa’s question about The Crown. Inkoo, how did it get so good this season? Was it the show that changed, or was it us?

Yours in corgis,

Kathryn

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