While the prospect of yet another late-night comedy show taking potshots at the day or week’s events might evoke reactions ranging from exhaustion to molar-grinding irritation, comedian and former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac has a solution. Or at least, a series of more thoughtful questions than “What the fuck did Donald Trump do this time?” Indeed, in the Friday’s series premiere of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, Cenac dispatches the requisite Trump-bashing in the first 30 seconds, asking if people really want him to do jokes about “Donald Trump and how we’re all fucked.” “You know that already,” he shrugs, before moving onto the show’s more comprehensive, big-picture examination of how we may all, indeed, be fucked.
The structure of this first Problem Areas saw Cenac, as deceptively laid-back as ever, doing a playfully graphics-heavy version of the traditional late show monologue in the sort of quirky, wood-paneled set Wes Anderson might covet. An extended bit about the phenomenon of billionaires like SpaceX founder Elon Musk plotting to ditch Earth while “plundering space,” is followed by a filmed segment called “A Modest Proposal,” about the potential of turning cow (and human) shit into fuel that echoes the “And Now This” interstitial bits on Problem Areas producer John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. (A British company’s human poo-powered bus is shown happily making its rounds festooned with artwork of cartoon people on the crapper.)
Also like Oliver, the bulk of the episode then turns to an in-depth examination of a single issue. But Cenac states that that one issue—policing in America—will be the main focus of this entire 10-episode season. Cenac forcibly restrains the camera from taking a powder at the announcement that a black guy is going to talk policing, promising that Problem Areas is going to approach the absurdly complicated issue as an ongoing conversation with a “group of reasonable people who also know their shit.” And he does just that, moving from a rundown of the recent Sacramento police killing of unarmed (but for a cell phone) black man Stephon Clark to the slightly less recent killing of black Minnesotan Philando Castile, gunned down in front of his family while complying with an officer’s orders.
Introducing a large and varied selection of talking heads from law enforcement, civil rights and community activism, mayors, lawyers, and others, Cenac starts out his season by talking to those looking at the ways to prevent such incidents, with a focus on a police department with a “character-based hiring” strategy. As CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta puts it, such approaches aren’t the“silver bullet” in ensuring that regular bullets stop winding up needlessly in people of color. But, as Cenac signs off the first episode of this welcome new entry in the late-night roster, “There’s a lot of shit to unpack about what’s wrong with policing and how to fix it. But it’s worth talking about, because it feels like a lot of people don’t really want to try.”
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas airs Friday nights at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO.