Much to my initial disappointment, How to With John Wilson (BBC2) is not a guide to life by the Radio 4 presenter, though surely there is a market for that. It is an HBO series, arriving here two years after it first aired in the US, consisting of themed documentaries by the film-maker John Wilson, though at times it comes across more like an art project with surreal comedy undertones. Each week Wilson takes an idea or prompt and tells a story in voiceover, using an extraordinary collage of footage taken from the streets of New York City, and beyond, to illustrate his points, either literally or symbolically. It is extremely odd – I can’t think of another show like it – and oddly moreish.
The first episode, How to Make Small Talk, sets the tone, and in a way that is a shame because the second, How to Put Up Scaffolding, is much, much better and seems to have a clearer idea of what this project is going to be. But first, he has to find his feet. To investigate what small talk is, and why we do it, Wilson captures people on the streets of New York. He films pets, plants and the actor Kyle MacLachlan attempting, and failing, to swipe his MetroCard on the subway. He meets a professor of philosophy to ask a far-reaching question about the future of humanity, then poses the same question to a man attending a huge WrestleMania event. This man reveals that, in his spare time, he sets up fake internet profiles to trap child predators. Wilson follows him to Pennsylvania to watch him work.
This sets up the idea that this might be an artier Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, but it soon deviates. Wilson follows small talk to a point of discomfort, and then keeps going. He buys a blood-stained rug from a man online, and hears all about his recently ex-wife. (It reminded me of Miranda July’s It Chooses You project, from 2011, in which the artist//writer/performer/film-maker documented the people she met after responding to classified ads.) He attends a concert by a Red Hot Chili Peppers bagpipe tribute band the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, then tries to make friends by wearing their T-shirt. A travel agent tells him all about his love life. He goes on holiday to Cancún in Mexico and meets a man called Chris, who is there to party but later reveals much more about why he is in search of oblivion.
Wilson is ever-present in voiceover, though he is barely there physically. There are rare moments when he does appear, caught in a reflection in a mirror or window, as if he has dropped in on his own films by mistake. This has the effect of making it seem very intimate – as if there is no intermediary there at all – and occasionally uncomfortably intrusive. (Wilson has said that he is followed by a team of people who get “almost everybody” filmed to sign release forms.) His distinctive voice holds it all together, in hesitant tones, full of ums, ahs and faux naivety, revealing facts, some statements dressed up as facts that may not be facts at all, and descriptions that are mundane or florid, depending on his mood.
Episode two is about why there is so much scaffolding in New York City, and the added focus works better, although to call it focus is a stretch: this meanders through a job Wilson once had filming beef for an online shopping channel, a scientist who explains cellular scaffolding, the use of scaffolding in classic movies and a scaffolding convention in New Orleans, which reveals much lot about how lucrative the scaffolding industry can be. Just as Seamus Heaney once did, Wilson settles on scaffolding as a metaphor, though in this case, not for enduring love, but rather our desire for protection against imaginary dangers.
This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It is arch and arty, a compilation of deceptively ordinary images and imaginative ideas. Wilson looks at scaffolding and sees a homogeneous world: as he talks about the sameness of the fancy scaffolding that proliferates in wealthy neighborhoods, we see footage of two men walking, dressed in the same business-smart casual wear. While Wilson is a compelling narrator, he is an unreliable one – I couldn’t be sure what was true and what was written for laughs: he signs off each episode like a newsreader; there are flights of fancy about mistaking a nightclub for a religious service. It is highly original and unusual, and when it finds its sweet spot, it is an empathetic and lovely celebration of the characters and eccentricities that make life interesting. I loved it.