Daily Show alums are everywhere these days. Between Stephen Colbert on CBS, Samantha Bee on TBS, John Oliver on HBO, and the flagship show still running strong on Comedy Central under Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart’s many proteges have all but taken over late-night. There are more options in the timeslot than ever before, especially for those who like sharp and funny political commentary.
Wyatt Cenac knows this, and it’s clear from the first minute of his new show, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, that he’s doing everything he can to make his foray into the format stand out. The first thing you think when you see his set, reminiscent in design to something you might find on an educational PBS show from the ‘80s, is, “Where’s the studio audience?” Sure enough, the first thing Cenac says is, “You might be asking, ‘Where’s the studio audience?’”
Rather than taking on the role of traditional talk show host, or even comedic pundit, Cenac distinguishes himself from his contemporaries by assuming the position of a moderator. Cenac isn’t delivering screeds on the week’s news.
“This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about Donald Trump and how we’re all fucked, but you already know that,” he says.
As well as the impassioned rant has worked for his peers, Cenac wants to jumpstart conversations.
He does this by talking directly to the camera, which always stays fairly close on him, forcing you to engage with his perspective. The show’s whole look, in fact, with its old-fashioned set and dim lighting, is designed to feel casual and put you at ease so you’re ready to engage. There are a few other stylistic touches at play, including a fairly standard amount of news footage, statistics, and animation.
Once he’s made it clear that he’s not interested in Trump, he turns his attention to something that does interest him: space travel. Cenac posits an interesting theory, that the reason so many billionaires are interested in colonizing the stars is not for the good of mankind, but because they see it as a potential real estate investment for the super-rich once the planet’s natural resources are used up. After that, there’s a little segway about cow manure in America, and the effect it’s having on the ecosystem.
The meat of the pilot, which he promises the show will continue to discuss over the season’s 10 episodes, is police misconduct and brutality. For this segment, Cenac pulls together pre-recorded interviews with various experts in the field, from officers to activists, to academic; even New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio pops up. In addition to hearing their perspectives, Problem Areas frames this particular episode around the shooting of Philando Castile and law enforcement in St. Paul, Minnesota, the city he was shot in.
This is where Cenac goes out in the field, traveling to St. Paul and interviewing officials and community organizers. Training ends up becoming the main issue. How do you find and prepare good cops, the show asks. Cenac doesn’t just scratch the surface with this question either, he goes deep. Digging into current police training in America, he profiles the Killology Research Group, which espouses teachings that essentially amount to the idea that you shouldn’t feel guilty if you have to take a life. (The whole thing is so twisted that it’s worth looking up if you can stomach it.)
If Problem Areas is able to extract a kind of central thesis out of this first half hour, it’s the idea that police officers should have less of a warrior mentality and more of a guardian mentality. But Problem Areas isn’t interested in telling you what to think, it’s interested in making you think.
Sam Bee brought a much-needed feminist perspective to late-night. John Oliver (who’s also a producer on Problem Areas) focused on issues around the world and diving deep into a topic one week at a time. Cenac looks at institutional prejudice and tackles issues in season-long explorations. It’s a fascinating approach, one that might feel more at home in a Netflix docuseries than in a comedy show. Cenac himself is so laid back, one does worry that with no studio audience, with the unflashy way the show presents itself, it may have a hard time attracting viewers. Remember that HBO canceled Bill Simmons’ restrained Any Given Wednesday back in 2016, another late-night offering without a studio audience.
But Cenac was always different than his Daily Show contemporaries, so it’s fitting his show should be too.