Academia is not often touched on in film and television stories. Perhaps this is because it’s such a contentious field, with old white men still helming a lot of prestigious institutions. Or, maybe it’s just not that interesting to watch a bunch of people sitting around discussing Chaucer. Either way, the choice by actress and first-time screenwriter Amanda Peet and Harvard Ph.D. candidate Annie Wyman to make an entire TV show dedicated to academia is a bold one.
Their Netflix Original, The Chair follows Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), an American studies professor who is promoted to chair of her department. In her new role, she must fight back against the antiquated beliefs of her old, white peers. She also needs to advocate for younger voices such as Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a newcomer in the department, and Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), a once-revered professor who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble.
The main conflict in The Chair’s six-episode first season centers around a viral video of Bill doing a Nazi salute in class as part of a teaching exercise. Ji-Yoon has to carefully toe the line of being empathetic to the outburst of student outrage and also helping Bill, who is a close friend of hers, claw his way out of his cataclysmic situation.
The story is just engaging enough, not exactly suspenseful or overtly dramatic. It is quite enjoyable to watch Oh skillfully balance the sociopolitical complexities of an entire branch of an academic institution. But where the show really succeeds is in its tone. A series in this setting was always going to be difficult to construct in a way that was both meaningful and watchable. After all, studying Melville doesn’t exactly have the cinematic value of cooking meth or an Italian-American mob family.
But The Chair doesn’t attempt to match the tone of academia. Instead, it takes the show to a level of farce that makes it fun to watch. Enough that you are then able to digest its serious themes. This is clear from the cold open when the chair in Ji-Yoon’s austere new office breaks right under her. It also comes through in the string of sexual innuendos that elderly Melville scholar Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) consistently spews. And perhaps the greatest instigator of this comical tone is Ji-Yoon’s young daughter, Ju-Ju (Everly Carganilla), who is always getting herself into trouble in the most shocking and unexpected ways.
Seemingly throw-away funny moments like those make the more serious parts hit harder. The Chair isn’t all comedy. Ji-Yoon is especially prone to bits of physical humor. But she’s also struggling to stay afloat and save a department she believes in. Similarly, Joan first seems to be purely comic relief. But then she opens up about how she has never been taken seriously in her department because she’s a woman. Suddenly she’s one of the most heartbreaking characters in the show.
The Chair’s nuanced tone comes through strongest in its characters. The series doesn’t make a joke out of any of them — not even those looked at through a critical lens. One of the professors in Ji-Yoon’s department, Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban), is the stereotypically conservative “white dinosaur.” And yet, one of the show’s most moving scenes involves Elliot sitting in on one of Yaz’s lectures and watching, with a heart-wrenching expression, how much the students love her. Students used to love him like that, too, back in the day. And while Bill is clearly a wreck and makes some bad decisions, Duplass’ warm acting makes him one of the most sympathetic characters in the show.
With its careful balance between comedy and seriousness, The Chair is sure to inspire relevant discourse among Netflix subscribers and beyond. The series confronts issues largely evaded until recently. These include the prominence of whiteness in academia and the sexism that has run rampant through the field. The Chair suggests that we are at a turning point with these issues. Of course, one show can’t turn the whole institution around. But it sure can lead things in the right direction. Especially if people have a good time watching it.
The Chair begins streaming on Netflix on August 20th.
Related Topics: Netflix