More than a year into the pandemic, the world remains caught in the grip of a bleak future. That has brought uncertainty, isolation, and, for an unfathomable number of us, the end of everything we have ever known. It has been harrowing and relentless, exacerbated by the fact that we have been severed from one another. A salve of sorts on this gaping wound came from an unexpected place that offered a small glimpse of the world as it once was and, hopefully, what it can be once again.
HBO’s How To with John Wilson follows a man, Wilson himself, with a single camera as he takes on a theme or lesson in each episode, from small talk to scaffolding. Yes, it is about as strange as it sounds. Wilson is a strange figure and yet an entirely honest one in how he brings us into his world. Everything is seen frankly and without pretense through Wilson’s inquisitive eyes to make for the most oddly melancholic show I’ve experienced during quarantine.
In a world of immense pain and isolation, the documentary-comedy series was a sentimental yet silly, informational yet imaginary, genuinely cathartic experience brimming with heart. Even with all this grandiosity of emotional aspirations, Wilson’s show is also just absolutely entertaining. It keeps you on your toes as it changes and morphs with each unexpected development.
It also unexpectedly brought me home.
In the third episode, the halfway point of the series, Wilson attends the first inaugural “Mandela Effect Conference.” This “effect” is the idea that entire groups of people can misremember key parts of history, such as whether Nelson Mandela died in prison, or more mundane details like whether the Berenstain Bears are actually spelled Berenstein. In each episode, Wilson interviews distinct characters in a new setting, usually a location chosen with an air of spontaneity. It is in these random trips that Wilson’s quietly brilliant show is at its very best. The first episode travels to a resort in Mexico, the second to New Orleans, and the third, fittingly centered around memory, was to my hometown: Ketchum, Idaho.
I initially couldn’t believe my eyes. Almost in shock at the sheer randomness of it all, I resembled a cartoon character blinking in confusion with my mouth dropped down to the floor in stunned silence. Then, the next shot is of the main street, a place I have not seen in over a year.
As Wilson walks past some of the mainstays of my small town, he gives Ketchum the same curiosity and interest as the resort in Mexico and New Orleans. He treats it with simple reverence, though it was certainly the most obscure destination he had been to yet. To see my hometown through a stranger’s eyes as he experiences it for the first time was enlightening, perhaps because over the last decade of my life, I feel like I’ve become a stranger to Ketchum.
Long before coronavirus, it had been quite some time since I had been home. I feared deep down that I could live my whole life within the same ten-mile radius and grow comfortable with that being my whole world. Now, I live in Washington state, which is next door to Idaho but may as well be a world away in a pandemic. There is part of me that misses that small town despite myself. All of this came rushing back when I saw Wilson stumbling around some of the places I miss most. It was a surreal experience to recognize a street where my favorite bookstore, Chapter One, still resides. I recognized my entire town all living in the shadow of the imposing mountain it relies on for tourism.
This feeling intensified when Wilson went to the Kentwood Lodge for the Mandela Effect Conference itself. When I was in elementary school, I built a model of the building for a school project. My school, named after author Ernest Hemingway, who died in Ketchum, wanted to increase our knowledge of local businesses (this is perhaps the most quintessentially small-town project possible). I remember the project fondly because I got to work on it with my dad. He took it far too seriously, shooting for perfection by attempting to make a scale model before my mom thankfully intervened. Though I would go on to make a glorified box with toy cars in front of it, it remains one of the earliest memories I got to have with both my parents. When they recently had a COVID scare, the gut-wrenching thought crossed my mind that there may be a world where I didn’t get to see them again.
I was now seeing in Wilson’s show the real-life building of which I made a model with my parents. That it now hosted a bizarre conference held by an eccentric cast of characters may appear odd to an outsider. Not for me. For me, it felt like home. I had been to similar events in Ketchum. Not because I believed in anything like the Mandela Effect, but because there was often not much to do, so you found entertainment wherever you could. Wilson effectively taps into precisely what makes a town like Ketchum unmistakably unique, which can only come from it being as small as it is. Yet it also says something about the human condition. It shows how the smallest of towns, in the quietest of places, can still all play host to all the core aspects of humanity.
The show captures the emotion, aspiration, conflict, fear, loss, passion, and the unmitigated strangeness of life. No matter where Wilson takes us, that always shines through. That this all plays out against the backdrop of a Mandela Effect convention in a random hotel room in a random city in Idaho makes it all the better. The show becomes a microcosm of just how beautifully bizarre life itself can be. While this may seem incredibly lofty to say about a comedy show like this, it is the most accurate descriptor, and anything else would sell it short. After each episode, I felt a peculiar sense of tranquility mixed with sadness.
How Wilson manages to pull this off is as bewildering as it is moving. The Ketchum episode concludes with him walking around the parking lot of the lodge. I would always secretly use that lot as a place to park when getting food from the place around the corner, Wrapcity. As is common in the small town, there was no parking lot, and street parking for the restaurant was always limited as it remains the premier place to get a quick bite. Wilson and his new friend, Jerry, are looking in every side mirror of every parked car to see how the warning about “objects being closer than they may appear” is written (another supposed target of the Mandela effect). It is both absurd and heartfelt. Wilson takes Jerry completely seriously, refusing to humiliate him with easy jokes and instead seeking to understand his perspective through these humorous situations. Jerry is lost, and in many ways, so is Wilson. The connection the two share is strengthened by Wilson’s kindness and genuine desire to listen. He gives that same courtesy and respect to all the serendipitous stops he makes along the way.
He strolls along the street with Jerry and stumbles across the town’s Memory Park. Wilson remarks on the fitting name, and all my recollections of the place came rushing back. That was where, in the last breaths of my youth, I ran through water fountains. I sat on the benches, reflecting on how I soon would leave all this behind. Memory Park was where I felt excitement and trepidation at my impending future. It is where I left behind much of my past, now too far gone for me to ever get it back.
The duo then passes a literal fork in the road across the street, inexplicably constructed with the teeth facing up instead of down. Standing more than 6 feet in height, it marks the point where cars can either go down the hill toward the elementary school named after the dead American author or continue toward the resort nearby. The fork is a quirk, both intentionally because of the visual metaphor and because it was somehow decided to have the teeth pointing to the sky. It’s a ridiculous thing for any city to put anywhere, and yet I still would be heartbroken if it ever were to change.
Of all the promotional videos and tourism advertisements I’ve seen of my town, of which there are many, none have been able to authentically capture the precise feeling of what it is to live there. They were always built around trying to sell the town to an outsider who likely wouldn’t want to come for the character. These appeals were being made to the people who would choose to take the fork in the road to the resort, never bothering to see all the details and characteristics that make Ketchum what it is. It is these details that Wilson can uncover just by looking and listening to what everybody else would overlook.
Wilson’s willingness to look a little closer and see my home clearly made me realize that there is perhaps much that I, too, overlooked. At the very least, I may have not realized what I would be leaving behind. Now that I have been gone from it for the longest in my life thus far, it has become clear that the place I left, with all its flaws, is still my home. In a year where so much has been lost, this single episode of a show was able to take me there for just a brief moment. Despite having never been to Ketchum before, Wilson and his strange yet no less genuine vision were able to connect me to a past that I had almost entirely left behind, in a way a piece of art has not made me feel in some time. Wilson took me home.
CHASE “HUTCH” HUTCHINSON is an arts and culture writer based in the Pacific Northwest where he works as a journalist. He is always interested in writing about the potential film, television, and storytelling has to connect us. You can find his work in publications such as The News Tribune, The Stranger, The Portland Mercury, and The SunBreak.