Wyatt Cenac’s new HBO show doesn’t sound like other shows in late night. It’s not just that “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” dispenses with a studio audience, something the host is able to call out in his own special way. It’s able to use that occasional silence to give audiences time to think, something that doesn’t usually accompany series like this that fuse news and comedy.
When Cenac opens up each episode in a studio peppered with monitors and mid-century modern furniture, there are occasionally some cutaway gags with funny voices to help punctuate some of the punchlines. But for the most part, the first part of every “Problem Areas” is a direct-to-camera chat. You may have clicked “Play” on the episode, but “Problem Areas” has the feel of dropping into a conversation rather than tuning in for one.
That certainly doesn’t mean “Problem Areas” isn’t trying. This show benefits from being an effective extension of what makes Cenac an engaging comic. When Cenac ventures out from the coziness of the wood-paneled studio, each episode sets the tone for a show that sees its host listening more than joking. Some of that gets lost in the segments that Cenac isn’t a part of, like in the quick diversions about poop or converted battleships or chicken bones. But even those are still in pursuit of a show that’s working to engage an audience rather than be the loudest shouter in a crowded room.
What sets “Problem Areas” apart from many of its news/comedy counterparts is its ongoing look at a single issue: policing in America. In its premiere episode, Cenac is up-front and unapologetic about how this plays into the remainder of the season. Though other shows have returned to topics they’ve discussed in the past, “Problem Areas” has a certain amount of freedom to go along with balancing episode-specific topics and this larger question what to do to keep a cycle of excessive force from continuing.
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These installments can be watched independent of each other — the fact that Cenac nodded to this in last week’s episode is proof that this show can withstand flexible viewing habits — but this real thread running through the 10 episodes of this season keeps “Problem Areas” from falling into the trap of comedy show absolution. Listening to the topic of the week, Cenac doesn’t pretend that making this show will magically result in global attention and the problem being whisked away. Rather than addressing something and moving on, “Problem Areas” is building a season-long idea that the path to fundamental improvement often starts with recognizing when an existing course of action isn’t in anyone’s best interest. When the status quo isn’t working, regardless of the policy arena, this show looks at ways that change could facilitate a better outcome, even when it’s not guaranteed.
From the debut episode on, the show has assembled an ambitious breadth of interview subjects, swapping out a correspondent supporting cast for the opportunity for Cenac to discuss the growing issue of police violence with a range of people affected the most. In place of the usual shot-reverse shot interview framing, Cenac gets a firsthand account from activists, officers, and elected representatives in any number of setups: standing in the middle of a meeting hall, sitting on a couch, dangling feet off a window ledge, chatting on a rooftop.
Back in the in-studio segments, animated cutaways, and quick angle changes of “Problem Areas” has some of the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” DNA that pops up in truTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything.” In its grounded efforts to break up some of our deepest polarized instincts, this show also overlaps with another comedian-led show, W. Kamau Bell’s CNN show “United Shades of America.”
And amidst all the examination of policy and news trends, the show is still really funny. Few shows could pull off Father John Misty jokes, a disembodied baking gag, and an episode-long diatribe against sweet potato fries while still giving a thoughtful consideration of the issues surrounding the laughs. (They’re wrong about the fries, but no show is perfect.)
If there’s a call to action, it’s not necessarily a particular viewpoint. It’s to a mindset that argues for more openness to new ideas and acknowledging ideas for solving problems that exist outside an “us vs. them” mentality. The role of “Problem Areas” isn’t to be a grand disprover or a source for debate ammunition. It’s to give space to the ideas that pop up in those silent gaps where a need for a reaction usually goes.
There’s a certain sense of relief that comes from not having to offer up definitive answers at the end of each episode. Occasionally, some late night comedy shows offer up a potential response to an existing issue that feels like a magic cure-all; if we just do this one thing or remove this one individual, we can stop this from being a subject that we’ll have to return to this time next year.
If anything, “Problem Areas” is wrestling with the idea that some of the biggest issues facing the country stem from individuals or groups acting as if they’ve already solved the problem. It’s not that decades of systemic adversity can be overturned with a single snap. But in facilitating a conversation about police-community relationships, gun violence, or changes to our national banking infrastructure, “Problem Areas” points out how all groups involved might benefit from some well-placed shifts in perspective.
Cenac doesn’t come out of the gate claiming to be an antidote to the current comic-led informational show wave, to harness its power for something that will rid the world of ignorance or political tension. Even with the pointed comment from the series’ first episode that he’s not going to start by saying how the president will ruin everything, “Problem Areas” isn’t negating the things that other shows have brought to light. But that doesn’t mean it won’t try something different. To follow Cenac’s lead, it might be wise to just listen.
“Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” airs Friday nights at 11:30 p.m. on HBO.