Wyatt Cenac knows his aesthetic, and his aesthetic seems to be "PBS in the 1970s."
The logo of his new HBO series Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas looks precisely like the public television of a couple decades ago, with its friendly-looking sans serif lowercase letters in earthy colors. The set is the same way, looking much like one that a host might have wandered around to talk about the beginnings of the world or the ways of the penguin.
Cenac is gently sending up that documentary format while also embracing it in a series, scheduled to run 10 episodes, that takes as its central mission the investigation of the problems of American policing. And while the show — done without an audience — contains plenty of jokes, the mission and the research are serious.
In the first episode last week, Cenac visited Minnesota, where Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in 2016. He talked not only to Peter Lindstrom, the mayor of Falcon Heights, where Castile was shot, but also to officials in the Ramsey County sheriff's office, who are trying to improve hiring practices.
Cenac's strategy isn't unlike John Oliver's: The comedy is both brutal and silly at times, but it frames a genuine attempt to convey information in a landscape that seems to desperately need it. Indeed, Oliver is an executive producer here. Another is Ezra Edelman, who directed O.J.: Made In America, probably one of the best documentaries ever made about race in America.
There will be 10 episodes, and Cenac has assembled a cast of public officials, activists, police officers, academics and others to reflect — sometimes in opposition to each other — on whatever question is at hand. These are not boring talking heads, but the precisely right people to push a conversation forward. (They include, for instance, Jill Leovy, who wrote the book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, which I mention mostly so that I can tell you again that if you have not read Ghettoside, it is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I have ever read.)
There's a bit of an evolution that's come to pass along a bumpy line of comedy-news shows as Jon Stewart led to Stephen Colbert and then John Oliver and then Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee and Robin Thede, and now Wyatt Cenac. All these shows are different, but they share some lineage and have in common a desire to comment on news in ways that are funny. While the connections between them are clear, the later shows in this arc have become more biting and less glib, and certainly more willing to acknowledge that they have points of view and make arguments.
The Daily Show under Stewart remained committed to the idea that it was not journalism and was comedy only, despite considerable evidence that its place in the world said otherwise. But Oliver has never shied away from trying to influence policy or politics. Wilmore was freely opinionated. Bee gives no flips whether you like what she has to say, and while she wants it to be funny, she's not saying it just to be funny.
Cenac is the same way. The show is funny and well-written (the head writer is Hallie Haglund, who comes from The Daily Show), but it's not a joke. It sets you up with a couple of brief segments done in a more comedic style (the two in the premiere were about billionaire space exploration and recycling human waste into fuel), and then, while the jokes don't disappear, the policing segment starts. It's a promising format.
HBO has put it on Friday nights, which presumably means a lot of the viewing will be on demand. So fire up your HBO, if you have it, and enjoy Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas.
Although ... it's just as upsetting in places as it means to be, so "enjoy" might be the wrong word.