Inside ‘Problem Areas’—Wyatt Cenac’s Bold HBO Experiment on Policing in America
Less than 24 hours before I arrive at HBO’s offices in midtown Manhattan on an early April morning, Saheed Vassell is fatally gunned down by police in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood weathering the cruel agony of gentrification. Vassell’s death was preceded by that of Stephon Clark on March 18 in Sacramento, and of Decynthia Clements, days before that, on March 12 in a Chicago suburb. One might attempt to consider the timing for a trio of police-enacted killings eerily tragic if context weren’t such a suffocating determinant in America, where the execution of black people at the hands of law enforcement has become a grim, too-frequent occurrence.
In part, the killings of Vassell, Clark, and Clements were the reason I’d been invited to midtown, though I didn’t know it yet. Seated on the 14th floor, in a conference room overlooking Bryant Park, the comedian and actor Wyatt Cenac convened a room of journalists and critics to discuss his new show, Problem Areas, which debuts this evening on HBO and steers the late-night focus away from White House scandal and on to the problems of policing in America.
“We could talk about Trump and the presidency, but a lot of people do that,” Cenac says. “Unless you have a damning video of the guy beating the shit out of a baby seal, while screaming ‘nigger’ over and over again—even then I don’t think he’d get impeached.” Instead, the comedian says, there’s something even more pernicious worth exploring on late-night TV. “A man got shot in Crown Heights yesterday, and these stories keep happening,” he says. “There’s more of a conversation we can have around that. There’s more we can do as a community to try to change what policing looks like in our cities.” For Cenac—who’s got a mantel full of Emmys and Writers Guild of America Awards thanks to his time on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—the show boils down to a set of questions: “Are there blueprints for change? What do those blueprints look like? And are those things replicable?”
Executive produced by Ezra Edelman (director of O.J.: Made in America) and John Oliver (host of Last Week Tonight), Problem Areas is a bold experiment in TV. It’s a show, in Cenac’s words, dedicated to “decades and decades of the same headline” and wondering, “How can that headline say something different?” In modest strides, he’s breaking from the mold of late-night tradition altogether—Problem Areas has no studio audience, each episode centers heavily around field reporting, and a singular thread knots the season’s 10 installments together.
Each show is divided into three acts, with the first two allowing for an ounce more humor around contemporary issues. The final act follows Cenac into the world as he speaks with people across the country, in cities like Birmingham and Oakland, and tries to understand how policing—its failures and successes; its objectives and unintended consequences; its bloody history of racial persecution; its slow crawl to reform—ricochets through our lives. “Everybody has a stake in the story of policing,” he says. He admits that America’s obsession with imprisoning people is a way to spotlight distinctly human stories. “It’s become this polarizing discussion.”
“Everybody has a stake in the story of policing. It’s become this polarizing discussion.”
Outside of on-the-ground reporting, one of the show’s stronger aspects is its broad infusion of voices. There’s Jill Leovy, journalist and author of Ghettoside, activists Johnetta Elize and Hassan Beck, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and former Seattle police chief Norm Stamp, with expertise from people like organizer Darian Agnosti and Pelham, Alabama Mayor Bobby Hayes. “As a black male, we’re forced to look at these dudes in this light, as some type of enemy,” Beck says of being routinely harassed by law enforcement. “And it shouldn’t be that way.” In one episode, speaking to the death of Philando Castile—the unarmed man who was fatally shot in Falcon Heights, Minnesota in 2016—Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, recounts a now common ritual among people of color targeted by police. “He did everything he possibly could to comply, and he was shot and killed anyway.”
Whereas Cenac viewed his work on The Daily Show as done with “this very ironic, satirical lens of poking fun at 60 Minutes and journalism in general,” he says Problem Areas will forge a separate trail. He wants to strip away the roar of cynicism and play it straight up, allowing for unexpected resonances. “I can tell the story directly to the viewer. And I can let the viewer decide, not just where to laugh but what to feel,” he says. “The places where it hits for people change.”
Problem Areas joins a cohort of programs—The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Sarah Silverman’s unsuccessful Hulu experiment I Love You, America, and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper among them—currently grappling with an identity crisis. The polarizing consequences of the Trump era have only heightened the stakes for political talk shows, several of which now find themselves at a crossroads. It’s a genre of television that’s no longer as visionary as it used to be. This works in Cenac’s favor; he’s driving in the opposite direction, charting a new course for late-night TV.
Even so, Problem Areas is personal for the veteran comedian. At 19, Cenac was arrested for what he labels “honest bullshit stuff”—police alleged that he helped spark a riot. “You’ll ask, ‘What entailed inciting a riot?’ It was telling a mall cop to fuck off, and that was it.” (He later had to get the charge expunged from his record.) Before we disband, Cenac also recounts the story of his brother, who spent time in a Texas jail, and his dad, a New York City cab driver who was murdered on the job. “We talk about the criminal justice system, and that need for both wanting justice from law enforcement in situations like that, but also recognizing the justice system doesn’t necessarily work for people who are arrested or for people who have had crimes committed against them.” There’s no punchline. No laugh track. Just the truth.
“I want to go in and understand,” he says of the show. “A lot of the experts talk about, ‘We gotta figure out a way to move forward.’ To me, I wanted to understand what moving forward looks like.”