“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

“Behind Her Eyes”–For All To See

Behind Her Eyes, based on Sarah Pinborough’s best-selling novel of the same name,  tells the story of Adele and her husband David, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in drug addiction. The couple live an ostensibly perfect life in an exclusive London suburb.

The beautiful Adele Ferguson (Eve Hewson) was recently a patient in a mental institution where her husband was the presiding psychiatrist.  Upon release she  marries the handsome doctor. While a patient, Adele becomes best friends with a gay working-class Glasgow junkie, Rob (Robert Aramayo) who seems to be energized in her presence and she in his.  Together they play a dangerous series of mind games whose consequences are only hinted at throughout most episodes.

Enter Louise Barnsley (the excellent Simona Brown),   a beautiful young Black single mom living with her seven-year-old son, Adam (an adorable Tyler Howitt who reminds this viewer of the little boy in “Jerry Maguire”). On a rare night out, Louise meets a charming stranger who turns out to be David (Tom Bateman), the new psychiatrist hired at the upscale mental-health clinic where Louise is a part-time secretary.

Accidentally, Louise literally bumps into Adele and becomes friends.  What follows is a nurturing Adele, skilled in the art of lucid dreaming, teaching Louise how to take control of her night terrors.

And so the menage-a-trois begins–with a husband and wife both drawn to Louise and she to them.  The suspense and psychology of having conflicted feelings towards someone because of a sexual relationship with her partner is difficult to navigate and empathize under any circumstances, but Behind Her Eyes manages to pull in the viewer’s investment in understanding, especially Louise and Adele. …until it doesn’t.

In the fifth episode,  Behind Her Eyes inexplicably  swerves into sci-fi and fantasy, with dreamland sequences of bright-blue skies, ponds, floating Tinker-bell fairies, and gingerbread houses and tea parties.  Are we falling down a rabbit hole here?  Why  waste  a psychological thriller with so much possibility? 

There are many fans of this limited series. Sadly, I’m not one of them. Nevertheless,  it did have real potential.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

The Queen’s Gambit–A Passion for Winning

Queen's Gambit Netflix original

The Queen’s Gambit is a fictional story based upon the 1983 Walter Tevis novel by the same name.  A Netflix original series released October 30 of this year, the drama opens with a scene of an eight-year old girl, Beth Harmon (newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy), soon to become an orphan  residing at a bleak orphanage, Methuen, under a severe headmistress.  It is the mid-1950s and there are few options for an orphan, especially a little girl.

Struggling with loneliness, adoption and being a social misfit, Beth finds solace through learning chess from the janitor (Bill Camp) in the Methuen School’s basement. As she begins to earn begrudging recognition as a chess prodigy, emotional issues  with drug and alcohol dependency compete with her drive to win at all costs.   She is adopted as a teenager into a dysfunctional family. Her adoptive mother is both a support and an enabler in her addictions. If Beth Harmon doesn’t keep on winning, she will lose her soul in her aggressive fight for deliverance from her past.  

Watching The Queen’s Gambit the viewer may feel as if chess  is an endgame for survival. Other chess movies have also made the game a metaphor for redemption and transformation.  (Think In Search of Bobby Fischer and Queen of Katwe reviewed here on November 13, 2018). 

 Although the authenticity of the chess tournaments may be surprisingly riveting to some, for others they may slow down the pacing.  Nevertheless, Beth’s inner life and that of her friends and opponents still create a compelling story.  Watching Beth struggle on her journey to becoming independent and proud, –breaking  barriers to being the first female international chess grandmaster– is mirrored in each chess move.  You have to cheer for this underdog.  And some of the creativity in photographing the chess pieces truly is brilliant (including imagining a strategic slide of the queen’s pawn on the room’s ceiling).

Highly original and  surprisingly entertaining, this  mini-series is  a daring move indeed!

Availability:  Netflix streaming.

“Ratched”–Ratcheting Up the Tension

This Netflix quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel and unempathetic?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

Ratched  opens in 1947 as Mildred Ratched arrives in Big Sur to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital.  New experiments, believed to be cutting-edge,  have begun on the mostly affluent patients committed to their care. But there is  a brutal darkness within the hospital’s walls, literally cutting-edge, as lobotomies and other heinous surgical operations become almost daily routine.  In  eight episodes set in Hitchcock-style scenes, the diabolical scheming regurgitates similar carnage to “American Horror Story”(by the same producer, Ryan Murphy).

 In Ratched Sarah Paulson (also starring in “American Horror Story”)  plays the conniving, pathologically manipulative title character.  She performs with such intensity that the viewer wants to turn away from watching   how she entertains herself by creating chaos at others’ expense. As a predator master-planning each killing blow, Ratched’s targets all know she is coming for them but none are her match.  

The first four episodes are spellbinding, with an occasional act of kindness from Ratched to prevent a  one-dimensional  villain and sadist.   Ratched becomes understandable–if not relatable.  A subplot in which she has a tenuous relationship with Gwendolyn Briggs (the always wonderful Cynthia Nixon) has some of the best dialogue in the series. 

Nurse Ratched  becomes a metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority.  And in Ratched, almost everyone is amoral.  Mildred’s co-worker and adversary, Nurse Betsy Bucket (the terrific Judy Davis), has the same ice-cold authoritarian blood. And Edmund, Mildred’s brother (Finn Wittrock), is both the embodiment of evil and a hopelessly wounded victim.   

The second half of the mini-series stands in stark contrast to the first.  In Episode 5 the story goes into a dizzying spiral downward in both plot and structure.  Charlotte Wells (the astonishing actor  Sophie Okonedo) is a patient being treated for severe multiple personality disorder. Why she is introduced and so poorly interwoven with the other characters is puzzling.  Okonedo, in a role not worthy of her in spite of sensational acting,   unravels the first half of what otherwise would have been an extraordinarily riveting narrative.  The first four episodes could stand alone as a far more integrated whole.  

Conclusion:  Watch for a very exciting story for the first half.  Stop if you don’t have time or the inclination to finish what is a very disappointing downhill narrative .

Marcella –Battling Inner Demons

 

Marcella series

Promoted as a Scandinavian noir detective series on the streets of Britain, Marcella is written and directed and produced by Swedish screenwriter Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of The Bridge. Two seasons on Netflix, Marcella  delves into the psychology of a deeply troubled London detective.

In Season One Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) investigates a cold case involving a serial killer who appears to have become active again. At the same time Marcella also has to deal with her disintegrating personal life, where her husband, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), has made the decision to leave her and take their two children into his custody. In addition, her soon-to-be ex-husband is suspected of being involved with the murder of his former girlfriend, Grace. Due to traumatic blackouts Marcella cannot recall her own confrontation with Grace.

 In Season Two Marcella investigates a pedophile, who has victimized and murdered her young son’s best friend and other young boys and girls. The suspects include an arrogant millionaire, a 1970s rock star with dementia, and his talent agent. Her estranged feckless husband has become engaged to a nurse, putting their children in the middle of an ugly custody battle. Marcella’s blackouts continue, and she seeks counseling to help her remember –under hypnosis–what happens.

Both seasons of Marcella delve into the psychology of a deeply troubled and flawed character, whom some viewers will find difficult to empathize with. Tortured and battling her own demons while trying to solve some of the most gruesome crimes on the streets of London, Marcella is challenged by doubt and “impostor syndrome”, not believing in her own capabilities to discover the murderers.

In the final episode of Season Two we see Marcella end her denial, admit she is not well, and descend into an abyss. We are waiting to see how she claws her way out in the projected Season Three.

In 2017, Friel was awarded the International Emmy Award for Best Actress. The structure of the narratives in Marcella are so complex that a second viewing is recommended. Could the narratives have been clearer? Yes, but still not so convoluted as to pass on this one. Not as riveting as The Bridge in several of its versions, but nonetheless highly original and psychologically riveting.