Screen Grab: Finding the soul of New Dork City with John Wilson

You might expect New Yorkers to be unusually cool people. Shouldn’t their ownership of the cultural epicentre of the American century, if not the Chinese one, confer on them a rare smoothness, a serene and commanding urbaneness?

Um, nope. Like most other unhealthily large concentrations of humanoid biomass, New York is in fact a gibbering zoo of neurotics, dorks and freaks. Their brains are so cooked by life inside the volcano of late capitalism that they have no idea how to be cool, and no desire to either. For every real-life Don Draper, there are 100 George Costanzas.

The implacable weed dealer in the brilliant HBO show High Maintenance, known only as “The Guy”, is a notable TV exception here — but he is a foil to New York, not really of it. Both the actor-creator, Ben Sinclair, and his character hail from Arizona, where people apparently have a better shot at growing up sane. He functions as a perpetually baffled tour guide of New York sadness and weirdness, documenting the crumpled inner worlds of his customers by getting them baked and hearing them out.

John Wilson does something similar in another HBO masterstroke, the documentary series How To With John Wilson. But this is also a show like no other. Like all great comedies, it’s both cruel and loving. It helps that Wilson is a key target of his own satire: he is an unvarnished dork, a 35-year-old son of Queens and an obsessive archivist of small moments. Previously a videographer for a private investigator, Wilson films his view of the city nonstop, and keeps a bullet-point diary of every repetitive day of his life, which fails to stop the leakage of his memories.

To make the show, he pounded the sidewalks of the five boroughs for two years, filming countless tiny spectacles that he samples ingeniously into a bricolage of deadpan visual puns. Wilson’s voice is a halting, nerdy alto: a defiantly un-New Yorkish delivery. He looks down a lot, delighting in urban detritus: slops, rats, dogshit, puke. But the best subjects are the two-legged denizens of the city, at ease and ill-at-ease, chatting and bickering, dreaming and expounding. In one sequence, he films a lady quietly kidnapping pigeons with a rubbish bag.

Each episode is nominally a self-help guide: How To Make Small Talk, How To Cover Your Furniture, How To Put Up Scaffolding, How To Cook the Perfect Risotto. But the guide always lurches off on a batty tangent, often dragging Wilson far from New York in pursuit of fresh insanity.

At the end of How to Improve Your Memory, he covers a conference in Idaho for devotees of “the Mandela Effect” – a conspiracy theory that widely shared false memories (e.g. that Mandela was assassinated in prison in the 1980s) are psychic ripples from parallel universes.

The best episode is How To Split The Check, and begins with a deliciously awkward montage of dining companions fretting about who pays what after restaurant meals. Bill-splitting injustices have no referee to resolve them: that thought leads Wilson to an investigation of sports referees as paragons of fairness. Dead wrong, it turns out: he attends an amazingly bad-tempered raffle dinner for amateur soccer refs that degenerates into thievery and bitterness.

The last episode, on the arcane science of risotto-making, was filmed during the early days of the pandemic, and signs off with an unbearably sad panning shot along a queue of panic buyers in a supermarket. New York City was only going to get weirder.

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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