If the early 2010s was a golden era for depictions of Bushwick in the popular imagination – the “Girls” episode “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident” comes to mind – then the rest of the decade quietly belonged to neighboring Ridgewood. Its brimming, gentrified tensions appeared in the center of the 2016 movie “White Girl,” the neighborhood convincingly passed for century-old South Philly in “The Irishman,” and now its mundane streets have been immortalized as the primary setting of comedian John Wilson’s ambient, observational TV show – “How To with John Wilson” – whose second season aired last December.
“Hey, New York,” Wilson says at the top of the show’s pilot episode, which opens on a landscape of the city’s steel-colored skyscrapers, foregrounded by a raft filled with floating trash. The image, which brings to mind the view of the city from very hills of Ridgewood where Wilson films most of his show, feels something like a stand-in for the show’s perspective on both New York and the world, described invariably as “the weirdest show on TV,” “brimming with empathy” and the “quirkiest, most transcendent show on television.”
What critics seem to like is Wilson’s penchant for trash. Profiling Wilson, Nitsuh Abebe at the New York Times wrote that the show, like the unnamed corner dollar store where she decided to interview him, is “filled with things too mundane, too accidentally strange, too tacky or sad or flawed or lacking in panache, to actively star in anyone else’s account of the world.” Before his work was discovered by Nathan Fielder, a slightly more famous comedian, Wilson had occupied himself with shooting small documentaries with names like “The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods,” whose title spells out Wilson’s whole deal. In the poster HBO drew up for the show, Wilson is seen intently shooting a spilled cup of coffee with his camera. To promote the show’s second season, the coffee was switched for a group of pigeons. In celebrating refuse, Wilson draws on a stubborn hunger for transcendence. We live in a world of trash, the show admits. But don’t worry, his comforting, sleepy monologues insist. There is more out there.
In Ridgewood, Wilson finds what at least one blogger has called his muse. “At first, it was just price that kept me here, but everything is just the right height,” Wilson told Curbed last year. In the show’s early episodes, as if still impressed by the quaint scale of the neighborhood, he repeatedly films himself entering and leaving the metal gates that mark Ridgewood’s landscape of small, three-story apartment buildings. The nods to the show’s setting are often small like that, delicately crafted to evoke the idea that New York City is close by, without getting too specific. Sight gags are pulled from the names of local businesses, fires and car crashes that he saw happening down the street.
The longer spells he spends in the neighborhood tweak this idea without challenging it very much. A standup routine about splitting the check – “Seinfeld” feels like Wilson’s central comic influence – becomes a half-hour shaggy dog tale that takes him to the tables of Joe’s Restaurant, a greasy spoon Italian joint that has sat on Forest Avenue since the early 1980s. The places in Ridgewood where he often chooses to film are very much like this: family-owned relics of the neighborhood’s past. But these details don’t particularly interest him, and Wilson seems uninterested in that whole genre of mini-documentary that celebrates the corner record store that’s still doing it. Maybe these are the only places that happen to be oblivious enough to let Wilson covertly film their customers.
Perhaps this is why the neighborhood remains stubbornly anonymous in Wilson’s show, something not uncommon in depictions of the outer boroughs in contemporary TV. In a post the Observer published in 2020, the writer Greta Rainbow lodges a similar complaint about how another HBO show – Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s “High Maintenance” – showcases nearby Crown Heights. “The conflict of place, an ever-present concern for New Yorkers, is mostly missing from the vignettes,” she wrote. “By not acknowledging where their tales of morality take place, “High Maintenance” has constructed a make-believe Brooklyn that sees the socio-economic diversity of Crown Heights as natural, warm and fuzzy.”
But if Wilson pointedly does not mention the neighborhood by name or remark on it at all in his show, he is not immune to broadcasting some sense of local pride. At one point in the latest season, he muses that a familiar corner was once named the most radioactive block in the city by the New Yorker. “In the 1950s, they used to dump hazardous waste into the sewer underneath this deli because they didn’t know what else to do with it,” he says while panning his camera past a bodega on Irving Avenue.
For Wilson, Ridgewood is an open-air Dickensian curiosity shop, which he plumbs carefully in order to avoid the larger story of how the neighborhood has changed since its promise of lower rents had attracted him there. (Last year, Ridgewood became more expensive to live in than the East Village, at least according to one real estate data startup.)
In this light, it’s interesting to look at the parts of Ridgewood that don’t show up. The bookstore Topos – an early gentrification signpost in the neighborhood that opened in 2014 and where Wilson is a regular customer – is nowhere to be seen, its “quirky” Kyle MacLachlan cardboard cutout evades Wilson’s ironic touch. Surely he films whatever he wants – it’s the auteurist appeal of the show – but in a similar fashion, it feels impossible to imagine Wilson choosing to covertly film the Manhattan-trained waitstaff down the street at Rolo’s either. It’s a pleasure he saves for the real locals, who might not get the joke.
Among the local spots that make the cut include Artistic Neon – a sign store on Cypress Avenue, already the subject of its own celebratory 2015 documentary – as well as the only referee store in the city, which moved to Long Island shortly after appearing on the show. In his show, they don’t feel special or iconic – like the locations historically celebrated by shows like “Sex & the City” or “Seinfeld” – but weird in a comforting, ordinary sort of way, like chunks of folk art. Fortunately, at least for now, there’s still some of that Ridgewood left for Wilson to film.
All images are from HBO’s “How To With John Wilson.”
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