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.
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