In The Chair – streaming on Netflix – Sandra Oh plays Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly appointed chair of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University. Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, The Chair throws Ji-Yoon into a perennial state of jugglery, the English department in dire need of an overhaul, diversity and some literal dose of colour in the form of reinventing the syllabus and methods.
Ageing professors like Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) swear by Melville and Chaucer with course registrations that resemble a screen playing a Terrence Malick two doors down the latest Marvel release. Ji-Yoon steps willingly to play the clown of this circus with big ambitions – to get the department’s first black professor (Nana Mensah as Yaz McKay) tenured, to reinvigorate both the students and the department and make them fall in love with literature again.
The Chair wants us to focus on the irony of its own setup; how the issues of free speech, cancel culture, sexism, learning methodologies and the eternal clash between doing the right thing and keeping alive the endowments and benefactors turn out to be more challenging in a liberal arts department and not an engineering department that lacks a sociological bent.
A place where it will be too obvious even if the students are constantly engaged in new developments in their field. If it is hard enough here, then where is it easier? Ji-Yoon even gets an opportunity to say that the field is not as stagnant as it seems to David Duchovny (yes, that one, playing himself). The Chair consists of only six episodes, but it takes all this and more without giving itself enough time to engage with every idea. Ji-Yoon is mother to an adopted daughter Ju Ju, precocious and prone to speak her mind, something Ji-Yoon could do with in her workplace but is held back by romantic and professional turmoil.
Jay Duplass’s Bill Dobson, a star professor who cannot fold his hands together without causing a ruckus becomes the centre of both Ji-Yoon’s life at university and at home when he gets embroiled in a scandal for a parodic mid-lecture Sieg Heil that is taken out of context only for protests to erupt at school and the internet.
At some level, The Chair is an attempt to go backstage of such events and give us stories and the challenges facing the other side. It wants to add nuance to eruptions of heated internet debates based on innocuous GIF images.
Its many ambitions are noble, but the show barely scratches the surface, focusing too much on Dobson and his equation with Ji-Yoon and her daughter, and how at every step of the way she tries to muffle the controversy rather than taking it head-on.
The academia aesthetic too is mined for humour instead of an incisive look towards a culture that requires intravenous infusion. With a longer runtime and maybe more episodes, the show could have seeped into the lives of the students, what their true feelings about the department are (more than the anonymous internet feedback we get here) in addition to the classroom dynamics of each teaching staff, their research interests and prejudices.
The Chair instead finds it comfortable to coast along with Sandra Oh’s unmatched aura and comedic timing, her sense of duty always at war with the shackles that constrain her in this wildly promising premise that fails to keep up.