When I heard that Comedy Central had greenlit a show called Problematic (a word often used in social justice circles), I wondered if it would be the second-coming of the short-lived The Jeselnik Offensive, a show which often pushed the boundaries of good taste for the sole purpose of seeing what it could get away with. Truth be told, I enjoyed that show, but I wondered what the value of another anti-PC-for-the-sake-of-anti-PC show would really be. Luckily, I had the title completely misread; in three episodes, Problematic has already revealed itself to be an incredibly thoughtful show, with some of the smartest political conversations I’ve seen on television in quite some time.
The basic premise is that in each episode, host Moshe Kasher and his panel of guests look at a topic that is currently a source of intense debate within the world. So far, these topics have included cultural appropriation, Islamophobia, and how the overabundance of technology affects our lives. Based on the advertising, it seems the show could also approach topics like the rise of the “alt-right,” as well as the notion of the “Bernie Bro.” So far, Problematic seems like a 2010s version of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. Much like that show, it explores topics that people are often uncomfortable talking about in mixed company, and it does so without much concern for offending the sensibilities of either side. On this show, it feels like anything is up for grabs.
And yet, the conversation is also civil and balanced. Consider the debut episode, which discussed cultural appropriation. This is a topic that elicits strong emotions in both directions, mostly because (as Kasher points out), it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Can we acknowledge that yes, white people have often made money from the innovations of people of color (and African-Americans in particular) while also not going so far as to say that it’s wrong for white people to eat sushi (as a recent Oberlin protest seemed to imply)? The show approached the topic in a way that was both insightful and funny, discussing the idea that a lot of good can come from mixing cultures while also acknowledging how much that process has historically favored white people. If you’ve seen people talk about this topic on the internet, you’ve likely seen a lot of ugly arguments that lead nowhere and just make people angry. On Problematic, the topic was handled in a way that considered all sides and came to conclusions that were logical and reasoned. To put it another way, it avoided all of the worst aspects of internet debate culture.
Really, a central goal of Problematic seems to be tearing down the echo chambers that often exist in modern political discourse. In the internet age, you are quite free to only seek out articles and information that supports your point of view, while dismissing anything to the contrary as obviously wrong and not worth your time. This show pushes back at that notion. That’s not to say it treats all views as equal; rather, it posits that when people have views we justifiably find repulsive, there’s a value in attempting to figure out why those people hold those views. Even if you subscribe to the notion that, say, anyone who voted for Trump is at least something of a racist based on how much racism they were willing to tolerate, there could still be value in understanding their motivations. Indeed, this show would never claim that so-called SJWs and those who self-identify as “alt-right” are on the same moral grounds, but it does suggest that there could be value in knowing where each side is coming from. At a time when it’s easy to dismiss opposing viewpoints as quickly as possible, this is certainly a refreshing approach.
This week’s episode of the show discussed Islamophobia, and it was easily the strongest yet, as an all-Muslim panel discussed both the origins of Islamophobia as well as the best way to combat it. In this episode, we saw the panel respond to a question from a right-wing viewer who cited debunked stats about rapes occurring in Muslim countries that often show up in alt-right forums. There’s a case to be made the question and its asker were treated with more dignity than they deserved, but that was a fine example of what the show does best: taking on the views we find loathsome rather than allowing them to silently linger away from our view.
Problematic feels like the perfect show for both the age of Trump and the age of the internet. When 63 million people vote for someone who openly calls Mexican immigrants rapists, there’s value in trying to figure out how and why that happened. This show seems more focused on answering that question than any other that I’ve seen. The likes of Colbert, Bee, and Noah can all be good for a laugh, but they often say little more than “hey guys, Trump is bad.” This show is willing to take on the questions that don’t have easy answers, and that we may not feel comfortable even thinking about, much less discussing in public. It’s only been three episodes, but Problematic has already shown the potential to be something great. In the Trump era, the last thing we should be doing is staying our comfort zones. With this, Moshe Kasher is doing everything he can to drag us out of them, and for that, he should be commended.