In the era of Trump, late night TV has become saturated with talking heads putting out segments and quick, worn-out jokes about the most talked-about man in America, but comedian Wyatt Cenac (“People of Earth”) is here to change that.
A three-time Emmy winner and former correspondent and writer for “The Daily Show,” Cenac is no stranger to the art of satirical television. Generally a writer hidden behind the scenes, Cenac’s new HBO docu-series “Problem Areas” puts him right in front of the camera. But “Problem Areas” isn’t another “Daily Show” or “Colbert Report.” From the first episode alone, the show develops a clear personality of its own. There are some obvious departures from classic late night TV — Cenac does not sit behind a desk to deliver his lines, but rather walks around on a set, which looks like a cross between a mature version of “Blue’s Clues” and a ’70s community center. There’s no studio audience either, leaving the focus on Cenac and not the laughs or applause he might draw. Yet the most pointed change from late night isn’t the lack of a desk or an audience, but rather the omission of late night’s favorite topic: Trump.
Cenac promised that his 10-episode series would be pretty much Trump-free, and focus instead on the stories that get lost in the shadow of the president. After his opening dialogue on the problem with billionaires and space, it becomes apparent that “Problem Areas” isn’t just another late night show hosted by a star trying their chance at becoming the next big voice in entertainment’s brigade against Trump. It is less a comedian trying to convince you with their side of the argument and more your educated, left-leaning friend discussing the world’s problems with you over coffee.
With some smaller issues scattered throughout, Cenac will be focusing on one major issue in America: policing. A Black man arrested at age 19 for inciting a riot is an issue not just vital to discuss, but pertinent to Cenac’s own life. The most impressive part of “Problem Areas” is the show’s ability to educate without promoting a single agenda. After admitting he’s not an expert on the topic of policing in America, Cenac strolls over to a TV where a cast of people — including activists, police chiefs and New York City mayor Bill De Blasio — pop up to discuss the topic in more depth.
Towards the end of the episode, Cenac ventures into communities to talk with the citizens and administrators that feel the real-life fall out from problems with policing. He goes to Falcon Heights, Minn., a midwestern town that made national headlines after the brutal killing of Philando Castile during a traffic stop. Unlike late night hosts who talk about these things from the comfort of their New York studio, Cenac manages to imbue faces and feelings into the headlines. He doesn’t try to add a contrived comedic twist or give a monologue about what this says about America. Instead, Cenac tries to figure out what it is that got the country to this low point, and how it could be pulled out of it.
In the excitement of late night’s comedic breakdown of Trump, other important stories get left behind. Comedy has become an important medium in educating people about contemporary issues in a way that will actually make them pay attention and understand. Cenac recognizes this, but capitalizes on the opportunity to shed light on the stories nobody else is telling. In doing so, he challenges others to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit of Trump-bashing. Cenac doesn’t examine the man, but rather the reasons he was able to assume power, and within half an hour, he’s giving us the information and the will to do the same.