In HBO’s Problem Areas, Wyatt Cenac Explores Policing and Leaves Trump to Everyone Else
When Wyatt Cenac unveiled his new late-night show, Problem Areas, at HBO’s New York City headquarters in midtown Manhattan last week, he wore a knit cardigan. From the front, it looked like a regular-ass knit sweater, the sort of soft, thick clothing appropriate for this year’s excessively chilly spring. It wasn’t until Cenac, after entertaining a roomful of curious reporters for more than an hour, left the room that you could see the back of that cardigan, which bore Malcolm X’s face: an unexpected tribute to the one of the foremost—and polarizing—black leaders in American history.
However silly it seems, that sweater has stuck with me, in part because Cenac’s new show does much the same thing as that innocuous cardigan. It complicates a familiar form and offers something all late-night talk show hosts aspire to on some level: surprise and connection.
Because, unlike the rest of late night, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas will devote a substantial part of its entire first season to the topic of policing in America.
The show, which debuts tonight at 11:30, was billed by HBO as a late-night docuseries that “examines a wide range of social and cultural problems facing Americans.” And while a test episode of the show did open with a monologue about space exploration and a funny interlude about biomethane, Cenac confirmed that the third bloc of each episode will deal with some facet of policing, bringing in field reports that explore different facets of policing in different communities.
There are certain words that publishers and producers love to float around for their work—“urgent,” “important” and “timely” being among them. Part of the problem with policing, Cenac pointed out, is that it is always a timely topic to explore. Recounting a series of incidents he’s had involving the police from the time he was a teen up until the recent past, Cenac observed, “We’ve aged, we’ve matured; the system has not matured with us.”
The 30-minute show is a bold departure from the rest of the late-night pack, which include a fair amount of Cenac’s fellow Daily Show alums. But like BET’s Robin Thede, he’s not interested in touching Donald Trump, whose messy, drama-loving tenure in the White House has generated nonstop fodder (one might even argue too much) for late-night personalities.
“I grew up in Texas. I’ve seen bigots,” Cenac told The Root, pointing out that Trump didn’t invent bigotry.
“I don’t find him funny. I find him to be this weird straw man that a person like [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions gets to hide behind, while Jeff Sessions continues to tell police agencies that they should crack down on my quality of life,” he said, adding that neither Trump nor Sessions is the one personally “riding around the squad car, then enacting those policies.”
“That’s coming from a police chief in a city that’s being OK’d by a city council or by a mayor,” he continued. “And if that’s a real issue that you want dealt with, those feel like the direct people to sort of focus your attention on.”
And that’s precisely what Cenac does, going to communities like Minneapolis; Austin, Texas; Oakland, Calif.; and New York City. It’s also personal for Cenac. In the premier episode, Cenac travels to Minneapolis to explore what’s been done in the wake of Philando Castile’s death—an incident that Cenac says reminded him of interactions that he, his friends, and his family have had with the police.
“I was arrested when I was 19 for some bullshit, honest bullshit stuff,” Cenac told a room full of reporters as he went through a litany of various run-ins with police. “I was arrested for inciting a riot. And you’ll ask, ‘What entailed inciting a riot?’ It was telling a mall cop to fuck off. I got arrested, thrown in cuffs and everything, and had to actually get it all expunged from my record.
“Every time I see a story [about policing], it creates a touchstone to an aspect of my life,” he continued. “Look, my father was a New York City cabdriver who was murdered on the job. And we talk about ... both wanting justice from law enforcement in situations like that, but also recognizing that the justice system doesn’t work for the people who are arrested, or the people who have had a crime committed against them.”
This, in part, informs Cenac’s ethos with this show, which is, at its heart, solution-oriented—another characteristic that makes Problem Areas unique.
On The Daily Show, for which Cenac was a correspondent from 2008 to 2012, he excelled at highlighting the absurdity of situations and of the subjects he interviewed, but he sought a different approach for Problem Areas.
“My approach going in was just going to try to learn something, and obviously have my own thoughts and opinions, but I’m not going to try to be right,” Cenac said, pointing out that a lot of what made The Daily Show reports work was entering with “a pretty formed, arch opinion that we can then use irony to explode out the ridiculousness of it.”
That sense of parody doesn’t define Problem Areas, which instead opts for a more laid-back approach to late night. Cenac hosts the show from what looks like a remodeled ’70s-era basement (the wood paneling and earth tones are there, but so are modern gadgets, like Alexa and Siri). He also scrapped the live studio audience and heavy, news-anchor style desk—a hallmark of late night.
“I never felt that comfortable in a suit,” Cenac admitted. “When you have that studio audience, that studio audience is telling people where to laugh, where to applaud.”
But while Cenac injects humor throughout the show, that earnest desire to explore solutions to policing issues like racial discrimination and unconscious bias is what shines through, and Cenac treats his subjects—who include community activists, current and former police, and even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—with respect and good faith.
Cenac’s quiet subversion of the late-show format isn’t unlike what Donald Glover is doing with FX’s Atlanta, which Cenac tries to keep up with even as he’s had little time to spare while working on his own show. A recent episode that focused on the hilarious relationship between one of the show’s main characters, Paper Boi, and his barber particularly spoke to Cenac.
“There’s something great about television in that [it] can show people worlds that they maybe didn’t see before,” he said. “There were aspects of [the barber] episode that felt familiar to me but also just perfectly silly and weird and interesting, and I really, really enjoyed that episode a lot.”
This mirrors Cenac’s ultimate goal with Problem Areas: to open up viewers to problems that seem familiar and show them something surprising. Sometimes it’s a solution. Sometimes it’s simply compassion. But ultimately, Cenac’s guide is his curiosity: “There’s something exciting about that ability to ask a question, and ask a question in a way that’s not simply out of frustration, but using that frustration and channeling it into something that could be creative or productive.”
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas premieres on HBO on Friday, April 13, at 11:30 p.m.