To borrow a line from a 1977 pop song, if a comedian can make it on The Daily Show, they can make it anywhere. That’s been proven in impressive fashion over the last decade or so as the Comedy Central juggernaut has produced a class of graduates that have gone on to sitcom glory or continued their work pulling apart the key issues and news stories of our time with a rapier wit and sharp eye for hypocrisies.
But even the best of the bunch (Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Jordan Klepper) maintained the core structure of The Daily Show on their new programs, right down to the live studio audience, array of talented correspondents and a near over-the-top tone that plays well to the cheap seats. The dynamic has shifted with this year’s arrival of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, a show created by and starring comedian and actor Wyatt Cenac.
The concerns tackled on the show are of a piece with his ex-employer. On each episode, the 42-year-old comic spends time unpacking issues ranging from tech waste to the potential connection between America’s love of violent films and TV shows and the rise of the NRA. It’s how Cenac goes about it that sets him apart from the rest of his former co-workers. Problem Areas is a quiet show, marked by silly sight gags and absurdist touches that align with his comedic sensibilities and voice, but wouldn’t necessarily get caught by a studio audience. Hence, Cenac spends much of the early parts of each episode by himself on a set that looks like the high tech bunker of a super spy in a ‘70s-era sci-fi flick.
His biggest gamble was deciding to treat Problem Areas more like a documentary news series a la Frontline or some of VICE’s better moments. The quick hit commentary at the beginning of each episode is there to ease you into the back half, which takes one prominent concern for Americans and explores it from a variety of angles. In the case of this inaugural season of the show, Cenac has focused on policing in America.
That sizeable umbrella gives Cenac and his team a lot of room to work with, and, to their credit, they don’t just stick in the studio, as each episode finds the host visiting a different part of the country to talk with folks on the front lines. It’s a thoughtful approach that leaves out the punching up and spirited mocking that were core principles of his Daily Show field pieces. For as playful as he can get with some of the folks he speaks to, Cenac never lets us forget that, like many of the people he interviews, he’s actually looking for answers.
To keep these looks into such issues as the treatment of homeless people by cops in L.A. and how a city like Seattle is working to keep nonviolent drug addicts out of prison connected to the larger theme of the show, Cenac and co. use a surprisingly effective tool. In each episode, a core collection of guests, including New York mayor Bill De Blasio, the former police chief of Seattle and a community organizer, chime in, commenting on or criticizing what is being talked about. What could have been intrusive winds up deepening the discussion and adding even more detail to an already deeply considered program.
Does it feel like taking a dose of medicine each week? Sometimes it does. These aren’t easy conversations to have and the big theme of the season is not one that many of us give a lot of thought to unless it has personally affected our lives. And that’s where Problem Areas has run into some interference. A show like, say, Last Week Tonight can raise the profile of net neutrality or the strange world of televangelism, but it often plays to its audience’s already existing biases. Problem Areas actively challenges our preconceived ideas about how the police operate and asks us to consider what’s going on in our own communities. It’s the difference between preventative care and reactive care. We tend to rely on the latter to help address immediate ailments while usually not looking into what steps we could have taken to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Problem Areas is far from perfect in this inaugural season. Cenac and his team have yet to find the right balance of the comedic and serious elements of the show. The funny stuff sometimes feels like it is an afterthought, the spoonful of sugar hastily offered to make the meds go down a little smoother. Those are wrinkles that will likely get ironed out as Cenac settles into being in charge of this new venture and solidifies the voice of the show. The fact that HBO has offered them a second season bodes well for what Problem Areas could become. The intelligence and heart and open mind that it brings to an overstuffed TV market should be cherished, cultivated and nurtured.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.