The Chair studies the absurdities of academia

Sandra Oh spearheads a failing English faculty in this fleeting six-part comedy series, which at times lacks self-awareness despite its accurate depiction of university life.

27 August 2021

By Rebecca Harrison

Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in The Chair
Sight and Sound

The Chair is streaming on Netflix.

“We are in dire crisis,” announces Prof Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) on her first day as the first woman of colour to chair the English department at Pembroke University. But no one expresses surprise. With their enrolments ‘catastrophic’, most of the faculty refusing to retire, and pressure to save money from the business-focused dean, everyone, including Ji-Yoon, knows that she was elected to fail. She’s determined to succeed, though, and to make positive change along the way. And, thanks to Oh’s charismatic and nuanced performance (her repertoire of facial expressions does the work of a thousand hand gestures), Ji-Yoon’s good intentions and idealism are persuasive enough to carry viewers through six episodes of cringes, laughs, and exasperation. 

Nana Mensah as Yaz and Bob Balaban as Elliot in The Chair

While Ji-Yoon tries to navigate the hurdles that the university throws in her way, most of the people around her seem intent on creating ever more terrible challenges. The show is attentive to the fluctuating imbalances of power and privilege inherent in the academy, and thus while Ji-Yoon is undermined by her senior colleagues as a woman of colour, she’s simultaneously trying to save them from forced redundancy. She’s also trying to support the brilliant Yaz (Nana Mensah), the first Black woman to apply for tenure in the department, whose popularity with students is upsetting older and increasingly irrelevant white male professors. Meanwhile the dean has plans to bring in David Duchovny (who puts in a star performance as himself in one episode) to give the Distinguished Lecture instead of Yaz, leaving Ji-Yoon lost in a maze of business jargon and moral quandaries that test her allyship as well as her personal ethics. 

It’s in these abundant moments of absurdity – celebrity lectureships, office fires, website hacking and more besides – that the show comes into its own. By turns humorous and contemplative, it’s generous to the academic archetypes that it represents while playfully drawing attention to their eccentricities. Dr Joan Hambling, for example, is a browbeaten second-wave feminist who has been left behind by both a sexist promotions system and feminist politics; with Holland Taylor scene-stealing every moment she’s on screen, Joan’s attempts to fight back against student lack of interest in Chaucer are as cringe-inducing as they are funny. The Chair succeeds, too, in its determination to see past the university’s glossy prospectus imagery. There may be red-brick buildings and vast window-lit lecture halls, but not every office is decked out in wood-panelled luxury, and every member of staff is having a hard time. 

The tension ramps up for all of them when beloved professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) performs a Nazi salute in class. Social media criticism and student protests ensue, and it’s Ji-Yoon who must negotiate a resolution to the crisis while ensuring her own professional survival and the continuation of her questionable extracurricular relationship with Bill. The fall-out is at times excruciating to watch, but the smart pacing and the confidence the series shows in leaving narrative threads unresolved across multiple episodes make it compelling enough to keep going back for more. Similarly, Ji-Yoon’s relationship with her adopted daughter Ju Ju (played with precocious brilliance by Everly Carganilla), complicated by their interracial and intercultural backgrounds, has an emotional resonance that made me want to see more of the characters throughout the show. 

Holland Taylor as Joan in The Chair

For the most part, it’s as successful a depiction of the strange world of academia as I’ve seen on screen (the male English faculty endlessly citing literature at one another is a nice touch), and there’s only so much six 30-minute episodes can cover. However, it seemed a shame that Yaz’s role is limited to that of moral compass, and it would be exciting to see Mensah given opportunities for comedy in a second series. For while her lighter-skinned colleagues are afforded moments of fun that humanise them – and often exonerate them – in moments of immorality or questionable ethics, Yaz is the straight woman who’s denied a joke. Perhaps this is a deliberate framing that speaks to the pressure to be perfect that Black women experience in many workplaces. However, the writing doesn’t show quite enough self-awareness to escape the suspicion that The Chair perpetuates many of the problems that it identifies – and, rather like the academic staff, it pigeonholes students as problems to be solved. Otherwise, The Chair is a heartfelt series, entertaining and insightful about the challenges facing academics as they fight to save their departments, their subjects, and themselves.

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