December 4, 2020

What Was the Problem With ‘Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas’?

In the debut season of his topical HBO comedy series, Wyatt Cenac resolved to tackle the challenging issue of police reform in America. The show, “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas,” drew on its host’s experience as a former correspondent for “The Daily Show,” allowing him to meet with activists, law enforcement officials and elected leaders across the country. Using a mixture of journalism and comedy, Cenac sought to educate viewers on subjects like community policing, consent decrees, defunding and abolition.

If it were airing on HBO now, when the killings of Black Americans have led to nationwide protests and the strongest demands for police reform in a generation, “Problem Areas” would be an especially timely series. But that prescient season was broadcast two years ago, and the program was canceled in 2019.

Looking back on “Problem Areas” now, Cenac remains immensely proud of the show. “It felt like our opportunity to talk about this thing that no one else in late-night was dealing with, that’s not making its way into the dialogue,” he said in a recent interview.

But having seen police reform become a central issue of American life as the country confronts institutionalized racism and audiences hasten to inform themselves on the subject, Cenac is trying to understand why his efforts to highlight it did not gain much traction at the time.

“It is very bizarre to think that when we did it, people just weren’t ready to hear about it or think about it,” he said.

What happened to “Problem Areas” was the result of several factors: choices made by its host and HBO but also the inherent difficulties of its subject matter and the systemic challenges faced by Black performers in late-night TV.

ImageCenac with Heather Farrell, a police officer in Elgin, Ill., in a segment from the show.
Credit…HBO

As Cenac explained: “I wish I could say, you know what? It was this thing — that’s the reason why nobody engaged with it two years ago and now they have an appetite for it.”

Cenac, a 44-year-old comedian with a low-key, easygoing stage presence, introduced “Problem Areas” in April 2018. One of his goals was to differentiate the series from other late-night competitors by focusing on a single, season-long narrative across 10 episodes.

Though he had considered devoting the season to a sprawling idea like gun control, Cenac said the killings of Michael Brown in 2014 and Philando Castile in 2016 compelled him to cover policing.

The overall issue was vast, but Cenac hoped to bring it into focus through specific issues of reform in each city he visited.

“You could tell a full story about policing, but also be able to see chapters of it by going to different places,” he said. “If you want to fix Minneapolis, you’ve got to be in Minneapolis.”

These preliminary decisions led to some obstacles, though not necessarily insurmountable ones. The journalistic nature of the show made it difficult to know what story “Problem Areas” would tell until Cenac completed his field reporting.

“You couldn’t game out what your thesis or solution was going to be until you went through that process,” said Ezra Edelman, the documentary filmmaker (“O.J.: Made in America”) who was an executive producer of “Problem Areas.”

“What’s your beginning, middle and end?” Edelman said. “It’s hard to know that when you’re doing something that is explorative and investigative by nature.”

Timothy Greenberg, a fellow “Daily Show” alum who also worked as an executive producer on “Problem Areas,” said the need for people who would speak on camera also proved limiting.

“You have to book police who are willing to go on television and talk about the difficulties in policing,” Greenberg said. “That’s hard to do. It’s borderline impossible.”

Perhaps the most significant question facing “Problem Areas” was one of tone and how it would create comedy from this raw material. “With something as serious as policing, how do you find the humor in it?” Edelman said. “Where do you inject levity with characters that are talking about dead-serious topics?”

Though “Problem Areas” opened each episode with shorter, in-studio segments where Cenac could be loose and lighthearted, his field pieces presented him as a more open-minded interviewer who was not necessarily striving for punch lines.

As Greenberg put it, “Wyatt’s instincts are to dig into the complexity and the nuance and spend time there, not always to offer simple, easily digested answers that make a crowd cheer.”

That approach drew some preliminary acclaim. In a review for Vulture, the critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that an early segment on police training was “powerful, well-researched, and as sensitively handled as can be,” adding that Cenac was “a major talent, and there’s no reason to think this program won’t get stronger as it goes along.”

Credit…Brad Ogbonna for The New York Times

Instead, around 300,000 viewers watched the first episode and the show rarely improved on those numbers.

“I remember being frustrated that it did not get more pickup and more attention at the time,” said John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” and an executive producer of “Problem Areas.”

“I thought, well, OK, maybe people will find it,” Oliver said. “That’s the beauty of HBO, right? You can come back and find it.”

But audiences did not seek out the series in sizable numbers, either. HBO renewed “Problem Areas” for a second season in which it focused on education reform, after which the show was canceled.

Nina Rosenstein, an executive vice president of HBO programming, said that “Problem Areas” was the show that the network had hoped for, but the program did not build on its lead-in show, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” on Friday nights.

“Content-wise, we were so happy with it,” she said. “It was scheduled in a perfect place. We supported it on air and with marketing. It was teed up for success.”

Cenac said he hoped HBO would bolster its support for a show in need of viewership, but instead felt that the network backed away from his struggling series. When “Problem Areas” was canceled, he said, he was told by HBO executives that it might have been renewed if it had been nominated for more awards.

“In retrospect,” he said, “it was something I found odd as HBO is the one in charge of pushing their shows for award recognition.”

Rosenstein said “there’s so many different ways to measure success” for HBO programs: “being in the zeitgeist, being reviewed by critics, being talked about on social media.” In this case, she said, “it just didn’t catch fire the way we hoped.”

She said HBO remained “really proud of the show,” adding that the network was preparing a stand-up comedy special with Cenac. “He’s in the family and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with,” she said.

Cenac said the stand-up special was part of his contract with HBO but that “it’s more of an obligation to fulfill versus something I actually want to do.”

“I’d kind of lost the itch for stand-up,” he continued, “but could use the check.”

Cenac said that going into “Problem Areas,” he was aware that late-night shows hosted by Black men tended to have brief life spans, pointing to past programs like “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” and “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” none of which lasted more than two seasons. (There are also prominent exceptions, like Trevor Noah’s tenure on “The Daily Show,” which he took over in 2015.)

“Whatever that thing is, that thing is real,” Cenac said. “There was a pattern that existed. You’ve got two and done, and I am part of that club.”

He anticipated this with a sardonic joke in the first episode of “Problem Areas,” when he followed an interview with Hassan Beck, a community activist who is Black, with a video clip of Peter Moskos, a professor and former police officer who is white, making an almost identical point.

What he was trying to illustrate, Cenac said, is that “when a Black guy says something profound, for it to really land, you need a white guy to basically say the same thing.”

Oliver agreed that there was “certainly something there” to Cenac’s point about the late-night environment.

Pointing to the praise that “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” has received for its own recent coverage of police reform, Oliver said, “The fact that that got a bunch of attention, coming from a white man, I do think is a pretty sad way to almost embody the problems that exist, rather than showing any way to solve them.”

Though “Last Week Tonight” has addressed policing in past episodes, Oliver said that he would not have been able to make his most recent segment without the “infrastructure of understanding” that Cenac’s series provided.

Credit…HBO

Cenac said he had grown used to seeing the topics he covered on “Problem Areas” resurface in the news and on other TV shows, though he did not single out any of the current late-night programs. “You throw your hands up,” he said. “Well, I guess this is the way of the world.”

Current events have brought renewed attention to the first season of “Problem Areas,” and HBO has made the series available on services like YouTube, HBO Max and HBO.com.

While Cenac contemplates his next move, his friends say that he has been reluctant to capitalize on this wave of attention.

Recalling a recent conversation with Cenac, Greenberg said: “I was like, you should be out pitching the next iteration of the show. He said to me he hadn’t given much thought to it.”

“That just goes to show, Wyatt is a real artist first,” Greenberg said. “As a strategic thinker in terms of Hollywood, that’s a distant second.”

Cenac said he had not been dissuaded from covering material that he is passionate about, even if it’s perceived as sensitive or potentially polarizing. What eluded him on “Problem Areas,” he said, was a way to convey these ideas to a mass audience. He’ll keep striving for the right format, but he couldn’t help but feel that the show not connecting was ultimately his fault.

“Some people are Coke and some people are RC Cola, and I may just be RC Cola,” Cenac said. “How do I get more people to recognize that I’m slightly cheaper and just as bad for you as that other soda?”