“The Chair”–Academic Patriarchy

The Chair, a Netflix series created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, is executive produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners for Game of Thrones. This comedy drama startles with unexpected energy.  After all, any theme involving university professors promises to be a snooze fest.

The opening scene features Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) as the newly appointed first female Chair of the English department and the first person of color. On her first day, her office chair collapses, foreshadowing the circumstances soon to overtake her.

The English department is not at all popular with students. Declining enrollments are triggering budget cuts and forced early retirement on the old white professors who never thought of sexism and racism while teaching the “Great Books”.  Ji-Yoon is highly motivated to bring excitement to teaching, modernize the curriculum, and work toward greater diversity.  But the old-school profs will have none of it.

“I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes,” says a frustrated Professor Kim.   

One of the major plots is the conflict and cognitive disconnect between the young progressive and idealistic professors (untenured) and the aged faculty who once thought of themselves as at the forefront of intellectual thought.   Now they are just part of an antiquated, petrified system of white patriarchy.  There is some uproarious dialogue between the old boys sharing their sanctimonious opinions.

Recently widowed colleague, Bill Dobson (whose complex personality is played energetically by Jay Duplass), is the former chairman and possible romantic interest of Dr.  Kim.  Idiotically “joking” about fascism with a Nazi salute, Bill faces the deleterious consequences not only for his own career but also for Ji-Yoon’s as well as the reputation of the university.

Two female professors add subplots that raise the interest in academic backstabbing and pedantic squabbles.  Professor Joan Hambling (the always sensational Holland Taylor) is past retirement age and is battle-worn from her own skirmishes with the old boys. Dean Paul Larson (the consistently reliable David Morse) relegates Joan to an office in the basement, hoping to antagonize her enough to retire.  Meanwhile, Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) is a young Black rising star being courted by Ivy League schools.  Not surprisingly, she is overtly disrespected by the senior white male professors. Yaz’s inclusion of feminist and rap-style dramatization of classic literature is anathema to the old profs as well as threatening, providing grounds for denying her tenure.  

The Chair mini-series

As if Ji-Yoon doesn’t have enough to contend with, Dean Larson reminds her that the university’s image and very existence is dependent upon donations.  Add more pressure from her personal life where her “aunties” wonder if there are still available men to marry.  And her adopted six-year old little girl, Ju Ju (the whimsical Everly Carganilla), is emotionally distant from her and from her grandfather (Ji-Yoon’s father), who only speaks Korean and who is an unwilling babysitter.  Ju Ju doesn’t understand a word he says.

The struggles that Ji-Yoon faces–in her role as a mother, her desire for a soulmate, and her wish to change the playing field and intellectual landscape of academia– are all too familiar for women.  No one is ready to take accountability for their actions nor recognize the need for moving on to meet current values and research directives.

Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon, without over-the-top theatrics, has perfect comedic timing in her attempts to balance what is impossibly askew.  Known primarily for “Sideways”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and most recently, “Killing Eve”, The Chair allows us to enjoy her hilarious performance with physical, and especially facial expressions poking through the mask of her professorial demeanor. Her body and face do one type of acting, while her words do another, magnifying the humor with the disconnect.

The Chair has moments of slag, scenes that should have been tightened to ratchet up the comedic potential.  One bewildering minor character playing himself–David Duchovny (“X-Files” and “Californication”)–is sorely extended in a scene needing to be truncated, but a hilarious moment saves even this awkward intrusion.

The Chair is a surprising emotional drama with charm beneath a sometimes goofy exterior.  Highly entertaining!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

­”The One”–A Perfect Match DNA-Style

Can true love be analyzed and dissected by science?  That is the premise of the  Netflix mini-series, The One.  Entrepreneur Rebecca Webb (Hannah Ware),  uses her own husband Ethan (Wilf Scolding) as living proof that genetic matchmaking can produce “the one” against all odds.  Her own match is  purportedly the perfect soulmate identified through algorithms and DNA analysis.  Her message:  “You’re not going to end up alone.”

As CEO of the start-up MatchDNA, Rebecca becomes unimaginably wealthy manipulating the human desire to find one’s perfect match.   Through scientific datamining, MatchDNA promises to  shortcut all the dating disappointments one usually experiences.

The backstory for Rebecca Webb, before she  becomes a female version of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, involves the scientific brains of her friend and partner James Whiting (Dimitri Leonidas). His genetic research on ants’ teambuilding and mating leads to the breakthrough innovation of  applying DNA data to the human mating game.  James soon leaves the MatchDNA start-up about the time Rebecca’s apartment roommate Ben Naser (Amir El-Masry) is found dead, floating in the Thames.

Enter a local reporter Mark Bailey (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) who is quite happy with his wife  Hannah (Lois Chimimba).  But Hannah is curious, wondering if there is someone better out there for her and perhaps for him.  FOMO. Tragedy soon reveals its ugly head.

The One becomes part sci-fi crime thriller and part ruthless corporate conspiracy.  Several key players have motive to murder Ben. DCI Kate Saunders (Zoë Tapper), and her partner, DS Nick Gedny (Gregg Chillin) follow clues that eventually lead them to the main entrepreneurs behind MatchDNA and its lurid financing. 

So many characters and subplots, The One reminds me of a number of Chinese melodramas replete with characters, murders, and suspects.  Keeping track of all of them is not easy, and the second season, in development, may pull together some loose ends.  The final episode was a cliffhanger!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  In “The Algorithm of the Marriage Pact” (New York Times, May 19, 2021) a Stanford student project and business plan– aptly named “The Marriage Pact”– exemplifies real life imitating fiction. 

“The White Lotus”–White Gaze

In this HBOMax six-episode mini-series (which ended August 15), we watch two uber-wealthy families on vacation in Hawaii (at the upscale Four Seasons) make themselves miserable in a perfectly-seeming tropical paradise. Their privileged existence is the luxury not to be concerned with others. 

In White Lotus’s opening scene, at the airport, Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), an insufferable, narcissistic scion of a wealthy and powerful family, explains with great disdain to fellow passengers that his wife, Rachel, has died…on their honeymoon. A cardboard coffin marked  “human remains” is loading onto a plane.  We’re ready to be hooked in:  a mystery awaits.  Who killed Shane’s wife?

Privileged to a degree that the wrong hotel suite–one without a plunge pool–can ruin his honeymoon, Shane zeroes in on making Armond, the hotel manager pay–with a vengeance–for assigning him an “inferior”suite.  Shane deserves the best of the best–and feels unhinged by the perceived slight.  Armond (the scene-stealing Murray Bartlett), the “hired help” providing impeccable but fulsome service to those who expect no less, cannot comply with Shane’s wishes but is excruciatingly obsequious in trying to placate him…as do all hotel staff.

His young journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) comes from a far more modest background, and is proud of her budding career.  She is beautiful, sincerely wants to be an independent woman, and is frightened by the specter of being Shane’s trophy wife.  Unable to endure Shane’s tantrums and humiliation of the hotel manager, Rachel soon becomes inconsolable.  Shane’s mother (Molly Shannon), who pays a surprise visit to her son and daughter-in-law on their honeymoon, tries to convince Rachel that being a trophy wife can be lots of fun.

The Mossbachers are equivalent to Shane Patton’s family in excess and decadence.  Nicole (Connie Britton) is a Forbes-style mega-entrepreneur emulated by ambitious women. But her teenage daughter, Olivia, can barely share the room’s oxygen with her. Bringing her friend, Paula, to distract from her dysfunctional family, Olivia hopes her friend will ease the tension on vacation.  Paula, however, grows increasingly uneasy with what she observes.  The dad, Mark (Steve Zahn), questions his own relationship with his son Quinn, the outlier in the family, after learning some secrets concerning his own father.

And then there is the wealthy single Tanya (the outstanding Jennifer Coolidge), who is in Maui to scatter the ashes of her unloving mother.  Lost, wanting some peace of mind, she offers to finance the dream of a local hotel masseuse, Brenda (Natasha Rothwell) to own her own spa.

This  luxury vacation is all about relaxation and renewal… until it is not..  The social critique of colonialism and its impact on the local residents is scathing and, at times, insightful.

All the characters have unhealed wounds, and most don’t know it.  They surround themselves with distractions, with what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “need to be white”,– the addiction to having power over others,– to use wealth and privilege to maintain position, oftentimes unaware of this thirst or the deep emptiness in their own souls.   Paula, in one scene, astringently observes that her friend, Olivia’s, insistence that she is not privileged and entitled is delusional:  “I guess it’s not stealing when you think that everything’s already yours.”  The self-absorption is, at times, on the verge of suffocation.

The hotel employees, caught up as providers for the served, want independence from being dominated. What drives the engine in all relationships throughout The White Lotus is money.  The hotel staff is essentially bought– body and soul– by the guests,

So many characters, so many threads of possibility:  dramatic turns of characters and their arcs.  We are hopeful.  But then they almost all fall flat. The ending of The White Lotus borders on fraudulent.  Hooking the viewer with an opening scene of a dead honeymooner in the tradition of a whodunit but then not delivering.

 No, no, no!   This series was such a disappointment in concept, writing, and overall structure with more questions than answers about amorphous, half-developed characters.  There were some good lines but I’m afraid a grade of C+ is generous, and only given because there was so much promise from excellent actors who needed a tightly plotted script, and a few highly original political and social comments about the “white gaze”.  A second season? Really?

Availability: HBOMax

“Silent Witness”-or Dead on Arrival

Silent Witness,  one of the longest running  BBC television series (broadcast in more than 235 countries),  focuses on a team of brilliant forensic pathologists who investigate a crime every two episodes. First broadcast in 1996, there now have been twenty-three seasons,  making  Silent Witness  the  entertainment industry’s longest running crime drama. The title character is a corpse lying on a slab prepared for a post-mortem analysis–a “silent witness”  providing evidence of a crime, suicide, or death by natural causes.   Stories untold, things unsaid. 

The crimes range  from human trafficking to  biological weapons, drug cartels, organized crime, corporate skullduggery, mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional insurance scam or  accident. The most insignificant anatomical anomaly or physical trace of soil or insect can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not.   Toxicology reports and DNA to identify a severed limb or family connection are quintessential procedural investigative stages.  Post-mortem dissection of body parts is not for the squeamish, as the pathologists, without noticeable  reaction, cut open and squeeze contents before plopping them onto a steel basin.  For those who flinch at biologically realistic appearing organs, bones and tissue, you might want to skip this series.  For those not squeamish you will find the scientific precision extolling  conclusions based on research and science to be riveting.

A brilliant, often ignored  female pathologist is commonly the key to solving the crime(s).  [Each two-episode case also features at least two corpses and two crimes to solve.]  The series has had multiple casting changes, including the actors who play the three pathologists.

It is challenging and so much fun to solve the crimes, from the viewer’s perspective.  All clues are there, if you pay close attention.  However, often an insignificant comment in a conversation at the beginning of an opening scene foreshadows who is the culprit. (Note:  It is never the most obvious suspect.) 

It is obvious why this series is such a crowd-pleaser.  Even with multiple casting changes throughout the twenty-three year history of Silent Witness, the drama keeps pace with  social change.  Nothing seems dated in any of the narratives, with the exception of some of the cases in South Africa.  In addition, not only the mystery and suspense of a whodunit plays to the audience’s interest, but also the backstories of the three key forensic pathologists.  Each is flawed with a corresponding family history and drama. The three pathologists’ unstable private lives often underscore the chaotic paths of their dogged, determined hunt for the killer, poking into their own psyches as they probe the “silent witness” to the crime.

Silent Witness is not headed to the morgue anytime soon, and certainly, is not dead on arrival.

Note:  A bonus feature to watching Silent Witness is seeing some of Britain’s most talented actors at the very beginning of their careers, mere acolytes learning the trade.  For the gimlet-eyed, some of the more notable are Idris Elba as an ambitious young boxer, Benedict Cumberbatch as a callow university student, Jodie Comer as the unfortunate subject of an exorcism,  and Daniel Kaluuya, as a teenager trying to eradicate a local gang’s influence on his family.

Availability:  Amazon Prime streaming.

“Unforgotten” (Season 4)–And Unforgettable

Season 4 of    Unforgotten   has been breaking records with over 7.5 million viewers tuning in every week for the latest developments in the cold case drama (PBS Masterpiece Theater premier July 11,  2021).  It is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most powerful and cleverly written season of the critically acclaimed cold case crime drama.  As in the past three seasons, all suspects are interconnected though not revealed in the beginning.  Red herrings abound and it is very difficult to sort out motive, means, and opportunity in this complex police procedural. Obvious isn’t always right and in this season nothing is remotely obvious.

We see season four open with a physically and mentally exhausted DCI Cassie Stuart (the extraordinary Nicola Walker) having taken medical leave from being the chief detective in London, due to a harrowing cold case in season three involving a serial killer of teenage girls.  Now she struggles with her existing mental illness while having to take charge of yet another cold case, aided by DC Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar). 

Matthew Walsh, a young twenty-something whose headless and handless corpse, frozen inside a small compact apartment-sized refrigerator, has been discovered in a junkyard, when the refrigerator door swings open and the contents dumped on top of heaps of junk. 

Unforgotten season 4

After some ingenious tracking of ownership of the refrigerator, a candy wrapper, and odd tattoo, Cassie and Sunny identify four police officers from the same academy– Fiona Grayson, Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Baildon, Dean Barton, and Ram Sidhu– who had a relationship going back thirty years with the now-deceased refrigerator owner.  Cassie and Sunny delve deeply into the rookie police officers’ training program and their lives since putting on the badge. Two of the five are currently police officers and all have reason to deny a relationship with Walsh.

Above all else, Cassie is a brilliant sleuth.  She is a master at understanding the connection between good intentions on one hand and bad actions on the other.  Despite that clear-headed detective’s acumen, will the darkest corners of Cassie’s psyche overwhelm her?  She is frequently at the mercy of her emotional tides, regretting her impulsive responses.

One of the more original character developments in Unforgotten, throughout the series, is the portrayal of Cassie and Sunny as  a man and woman who really love and respect each other in their professional roles, supporting each other, emotionally and personally, when the need arises without  surly competitive repartee or romantic undertones. They are a male-female team who have a strong bond as friends and colleagues without any hidden agenda.

Bravo!

Note:  It is highly recommended to watch season three before watching season four, to understand why DCI Cassie Stuart needs medical leave. For my June 11, 2018 review of seasons 1 and 2, go to https://unhealedwound.com/2018/06/unforgotten-the-power-to-recall/

Availability:  On PBS Masterpiece Theater and for streaming on PBS Passport.