Wyatt Cenac’s comedy-flavored public affairs show, Problem Areas, which debuted on HBO Friday, strives to differentiate itself from the standard Daily Show–derived format: the sardonic host cracking jokes into the camera, interviewing experts in a half-earnest, half-jocular manner, and introducing impeccably researched documentary/news segments. It ultimately does all of these things, though with small tweaks that give it its own flavor, such as stylish graphics and charmingly retro animation that looks like something UPA might have done in the 1950s. This kind of show can no more escape the shadow of The Daily Show than a news organization can escape that of the New York Times.
The main difference, duly noted by Cenac in the first few minutes of the pilot, is that there’s no studio audience, a format cliché he considers unnatural. I’d argue that it’s no more or less unnatural than going without a studio audience, as Cenac does here — a gambit that sometimes makes Cenac seem like a man ranting alone in a basement rec room whose wooden walls are covered with video screens and still images — and that all of these TV conventions are just different ways of getting a point across, no less inherently correct or incorrect than doing a sitcom with or without a live crowd.
But, as my tombstone will say, I digress. The opening episode’s “What’s Wrong With Policing?” segment is strong overall. Another segment, on the use of bovine and human methane as an alternative fuel source, is equally informative and (of course) less distressing to watch. Cenac is essentially playing the role of both host and roving reporter. While he’s still getting up to speed on the host part, he’s aces when the show puts him in rooms and lets him talk person-to-person. He and his producers (who presumably did the quick-cut mini-interviews with people like New York City mayor Bill de Blasio) ask sharp questions of experts in police training, civil rights, community organizing, and the use of lethal force, and cut them together in a larger informational tapestry, the design of which seems to have learned a lot from HBO’s sister program Vice TV (there are even huge Helvetica words filling up the screen).
Problem Areas suffers somewhat from a stilted quality whenever it’s on the main set — Cenac is so loose and natural-seeming in his stand-up that it’s off-putting to see him staring earnestly into the lens and reading prepared material off a teleprompter — but the police brutality segment is powerful, well-researched, and as sensitively handled as can be, considering that the show’s point of view is rightly aghast about the sorry state of policing. Cenac announces the show’s mission near the end of the introductory segment — “Maybe we’ll roll up our sleeves and figure this shit out” — and what follows feels a bit like those long segments of Last Week With John Oliver where the host goes on a tear for several minutes, explaining a complicated issue and proposing some basic solutions, confident all the while that if he’s conveying everything clearly enough, and with a splash of humor, that viewers will stick around until the end.
He’s not wrong. Cenac is a major talent, and there’s no reason to think this program won’t get stronger as it goes along.