Wyatt Cenac’s run as a writer and correspondent on The Daily Show from 2008-12 offered ample evidence of the upside of field reporting, but he is taking that idea to a new level in his new HBO show, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas.
The late-night series, which premieres April 13, has no studio audience, as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or Real Time with Bill Maher or countless others do. Instead, judging by a test version of the pilot that was screened at a press event today in New York, it is a single-camera affair. Episodes are enlivened by animation, short but sharp takes on wide-ranging issues and are anchored by long field pieces with multiple interviews conducted in different U.S. cities.
“It felt like it would be very easy to just stay in New York and tell these stories,” Cenac said. “But the problems in New York aren’t necessarily the problems of Ferguson, the problems of Miami. So to really tell this story it was important to go to these places.”
Visiting St. Paul, Minn., Cincinnati, rural Texas, L.A.’s Skid Row and other locations, the show will focus a long segment in each of its 10 weekly episodes on a single overarching topic: police. Problem Areas leaves Donald Trump and national politics to other late-night comics in order to get closer to the ground.
“This idea of policing is something we all have a stake in, in a bunch of different ways,” Cenac said. “There are 18,000 police agencies in this country. There’s no network requiring them to operate according to the same guidelines.” Plus, he joked, “I want HBO to understand why I spent so much money.”
The many facets of the police as a prism on society — everything from how officers are trained to how they interact with segments of the community like trans and homeless populations — serve as a “filter to tell other stories,” Cenac said. In the pilot, which finds Cenac in St. Paul to explore the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, an unarmed African-American motorist, Cenac said the objective was to answer basic questions. “How does a community move forward?” he said. “How do they create a safer community for everyone after something so horrible?”
The role of the police is something Cenac has long been familiar with, whether through family entanglements, an arrest for inciting a riot at age 19 (“for telling a mall cop to f*ck off”) or being pulled over or otherwise hassled by police. “Every time I see a story” about an instance of abusive behavior by police, he said, “It creates a touchstone to an aspect of my life.”
Bringing humor into each situation — even grim ones like Castile’s death — remains a guiding priority for Cenac, whose last major TV outing was a lead in the TBS ensemble comedy People of Earth. While he admits the show’s long field segments are “a little heavy” in terms of terrain, they incorporate a lot of his dry wit. (Two of the executive producers suggest a seriousness of purpose: O.J.: Made in America director Ezra Edelman and John Oliver, whose HBO show is known for deep, rewarding dives into wonkery.) Just don’t necessarily expect moments in the new show that recalls the arch tone as Cenac’s incredulous Daily Show questioning of people in a town in the Hamptons who were up in arms about a proposal from Jewish residents (watch the clip below). Problem Areas is more searching by nature, though still possessing a comic spine.
“On The Daily Show, we were doing it through a very ironic and satirical lens, poking fun at 60 Minutes and journalism in general,” he said. “With this, my thought was, I kind of want to have conversations.” As opposed to going into the field with a predetermined premise to be matched to an interviewee, “I am not going in to be right. I’m going in to try to learn and understand.”