Maybe the greatest legacy of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, at least when you look at the modern era of late-night news programs, is the field segments.
They turned the likes of Steve Carell and Ed Helms into stars. They stunned viewers by revealing, if not normalizing, the true feelings of America’s most fringe players. Trevor Noah’s baton-receiving spin on the show relishes them. Alum Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal has finessed them. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, also a graduate of The Daily Show, has made its name on full-episode long versions of them.
Wyatt Cenac has upped the ante.
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, his HBO late-night news series launching its second season this Friday, expands on Oliver’s in-depth examinations into the most corrupt, convoluted, and in-crisis aspects of American society. Instead of devoting entire episodes to an issue, Problem Areas devotes an entire season to it.
Last year, Cenac dedicated Problem Areas’ first 10 episodes to the issue of policing, police shootings, and police corruption, explored through a mix of Cenac’s commentary in a throwback, ’70s-era PBS studio and, yep, field segments shot all across the country.
“If after we aired episode 10, miraculously the criminal justice system had been overhauled into something that was more restorative and rehabilitative… I would be doing victory laps around wherever they give out the Nobel Peace Prize,” Cenac told me during a recent conversation about the show. The realistic goal, albeit over the course of an entire season instead of just one episode’s viral segment, is to “help a conversation that’s already been happening get a little more wind in sails.”
To say that applies to the issue of education in America, the subject of season two of Problem Areas, is an understatement.
The new season, which launches Friday with a deep-dive into teachers’ unions and the fight for respect and funding from local governments, will also tackle the private sector of education, school safety and how that concept changes based on district and economic level, how poverty impacts education, and the changing face of higher education.
“Aunt Becky’s already gotten her moment in the sun,” he says, when I praise him for focusing on what the players in the fight for better education are doing instead of the shitty things rich celebrities have made headlines for lately.
There’s a universality to the episodes this season. The first contains footage of teacher strikes in West Virginia that aren’t that different, for instance, from what I remember seeing from my school bus window when local educators protested in Maryland while I was in middle school.
That teachers have had to independently raise money for decades in order to fund their lesson plans is likely recognizable to all of us.
“I always remember seeing school drives and charity as this thing that’s a part of education,” Cenac says. “I think charity often is something that arrives after a natural disaster has happened. So we normally see charity drives after a hurricane or a wild fire or a tornado. On some level, if we keep having charity drives for education, it seems to suggest that there is a wildfire, tornado, and a hurricane that continues to underfund this and continues to put it at a state that it needs this emergency funding.”
And it’s that familiarity that makes it so outrageous that this is an issue we’re still so lethargic in dealing with. The education system is underfunded, and almost of all of us—based on our experiences in it, because we have our own children, or because we know educators—know this. Yet nothing is changing, nor has it changed for more than 60 years. (In Friday’s premiere, Cenac literally shows magazine articles from the 1950s raising the same issues that we have today.)
“I think we forget how many teachers there are in this country and how connected we all are to teachers,” Cenac says. “When 80 percent of teachers in this country are women, maybe it feels like there’s a larger conversation to be had about it being a women’s rights issue, too.”
When talking about how underfunded education is, Cenac talks with experts about how local charity drives to help teachers have evolved to educators personally posting Kickstarter or GoFundMe drives on Facebook and social media in order to provide their students with the pencils, paper, and tools that they need to succeed.
(My sister and cousin are teachers in struggling areas and have no recourse but to do this often, as I’m sure many friends and family of anyone reading this might recognize from their own social media news feeds.)
In the premiere of Problem Areas, educator and activist Brittany Packnett, whom Cenac interviews, puts this into jarring context. “Could you imagine if doctors had to use GoFundMes for scalpels?” she says.
Many teachers have master’s degrees in their fields, but they’re often dismissed as glorified babysitters. Yet they’re so dedicated and underpaid that many take second jobs and plead with their loved ones in order to execute their jobs.
“We’ve just allowed ourselves to accept that that’s the way it is,” Cenac says. “That seems ridiculous that that’s where we’ve allowed ourselves to just accept that OK this is just part of the gig. What you’ve seen teachers do time and again when they go on strike is to say, no, this shouldn’t be part of this. We don’t want to stand for it.”
Cenac travels to West Virginia where teachers have been a part of a surprising conservative uprising as members of their unions. The entire community had their backs. Students joined in marches on the state capital. The teachers themselves, concerned that so many of their students rely on free breakfast and lunch, called local churches and restaurants to offer meals to the students during a shutdown.
Eventually, they won. The goal, all the activists Cenac interviews say, was to fill the 700 teacher vacancies by securing higher pay. “It isn’t so I can buy a Disney Vacation Club,” West Virginia teacher Nicole McCormick says. Though, as Cenac tells her, “Shouldn’t you be able to buy a Disney Vacation Club?”
The challenge now is to keep this from being a fight that must be fought every generation, if not more often than that.
“When you look at it through that prism, the same things that we see actresses fighting for recently, whether it was equal pay or sexual discrimination in the workplace, are those things translatable?” Cenac says. “Are those same things happening in another profession where a majority of its workers are women?”
If there’s one thing he learned through traveling the country in order to do an entire season of a show on the broken education system, it’s this: “We need to put the money and resources into this in a way that makes this job one where teachers can give everything to their students but also that their schools have enough to give everything to their students. Because otherwise education becomes triage.”
And we need a whole other season before we get into health care…