Two of This Year's Best TV Shows Highlight the Value of Curiosity
"How to With John Wilson" and "Joe Pera Talks With You" exude curiosity.
Posted December 1, 2020
I watch a lot of TV. So it's exciting when I discover a show that feels totally new, unlike almost anything else. This year was bookended by two such shows: Joe Pera Talks With You and How to With John Wilson.
What I loved about these shows is that they both had, at their core, a deep curiosity about the world and the people in it. Even though they are both essentially comedies, they show viewers how the everyday world, mundane as it usually is, can still be endlessly fascinating and beautiful.
How to With John Wilson just finished its debut run of six episodes on HBO. Each episode is essentially a short documentary, shot POV-style, such that everything we see is through the eyes of its creator, director, and narrator, John Wilson. And a lot of what we see is everyday life on the streets of New York.
But Wilson's seemingly obsessive commitment to filming his entire life and his keen eye for the weird means that the show is littered with odd, absurd, and ironic moments, from a woman carefully placing a pigeon into a shopping bag and walking away with it to actor Kyle MacLachlan repeatedly trying and failing to swipe his subway card. Wilson constantly shows us that with a little patience and an observant eye, there's plenty of weird, confounding nonsense happening just beyond our doorsteps.
His deep curiosity and patience pay off in other ways. Ostensibly, each episode focuses on a goal, like learning "How to Make Small Talk" or "How to Improve Your Memory." Inevitably, however, this leads Wilson down rabbit holes, like accidentally vacationing at a resort where MTV's Spring Break is happening, attending a scaffolding conference, or visiting the home of a man demonstrating a tool he invented for growing back his penis's foreskin. No matter how bizarre or uncomfortable these experiences are, Wilson maintains a detached open-mindedness, simply asking questions and letting his interview subjects guide the way. What Wilson does isn't fundamentally different from what most social scientists do: They get curious about why people do or think something, and they investigate, without judgment.
At the beginning of the year, another show full of curiosity, Joe Pera Talks With You, aired its second season on Adult Swim. I wrote about the show before, and here's how I described it then:
"Joe Pera Talks With You is about a choir teacher, Joe Pera (played by comedian Joe Pera), who lives in a small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The name of the show refers to the fact that Joe frequently addresses the viewers, usually to share his thoughts or his detailed knowledge of arcane subjects like the 1942 Agricultural Pests Act of Alberta."
Unlike How to, Joe Pera Talks With You is scripted, but the Joe character seems to have something in common with Wilson. In my favorite episode of the second season, "Joe Pera Shows You How to Do Good Fashion," Joe and his friend Gene travel to Milwaukee for Gene's sons' fashion show. It initially seems to be a classic fish-out-of-water story, given that Joe, most often seen in khaki shorts and tube socks, knows nothing about fashion. But rather than dismissing the experience, he embraces it as an opportunity to learn something new. It's a perfect example of where most shows would go for a cynical take, but Joe Pera Talks With You instead opts for a sincere, optimistic one.
Throughout the rest of the series, Joe expounds on the joys and intricacies of everything from minerals to grocery shopping, to growing beans, to breakfast. Just like watching How to With John Wilson, Joe Pera Talks With You is a comforting reminder that there are pleasures to be found everywhere if we look for them and are curious enough about the everyday world around us.
All six episodes of How to With John Wilson and both seasons of Joe Pera Talks With You can be found on HBO Max.