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As The Chair opens, its heroine (Sandra Oh) could not look more thrilled with her recent promotion. There’s a bounce in her step as she makes her way through the ancient, august halls of Pembroke College — pointedly decorated with portraits of old white men — and she pauses to admire the gleaming nameplate on her new office door: Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, Chair, Department of English.
And then, not 30 seconds later, she’s tossed to the floor when her chair collapses under her. It’s the arc of the series in miniature: This is not the tale of a Korean-American woman triumphantly shattering the glass ceiling, but one of her breaking through only to realize she’s teetering on the edge of a glass cliff.
Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, the Netflix dramedy paints a picture of a department that’s already in crisis thanks to declining enrollments and a corresponding dwindling budget — and that’s before one of their professors, a formerly beloved trainwreck named Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), attracts national outrage thanks to a viral video of him performing a Hitler salute in class. The premise feels ripped from countless headlines about cancel culture on college campuses, and all the players seem at first to be ripe for parody. But while The Chair gets in a few solid jabs (wait ‘til you hear the list of celebrities the department has tried to honor), the six-episode season proves to be less interested in skewering academia than in adding nuance to the hand-wringing around it.
Again and again, Ji-Yoon’s best intentions smash up against the contradictory needs of anxious professors, a pragmatic dean (David Morse) and a disgruntled student body — as well as those of her personal life, which includes an adorable but ornery 7-year-old daughter (Everly Carganilla). Perhaps the greatest gift of The Chair is that its holistic view of Ji-Yoon’s life lets Oh play everything from frazzled to righteous to playfully sexy in a succession of smart coats and well-tailored suits; plenty of shows have been built on less.
But no character demands more of Ji-Yoon, or of the viewer, than Bill. Within the context of the show, it’s clear that Bill’s gesture was a tasteless joke rather than a deliberate display of bigotry, but it’s to The Chair’s credit that it avoids dismissing his critics out of hand. The series takes pains to show that the outcry isn’t an overreaction by a few over-sensitive kids, but a flashpoint within larger discussions about inclusivity, sensitivity and social justice. There are no simple villains in The Chair, and no easy fixes; on the contrary, the series goes out arguing that real change must go beyond the handling of a single person or a single event.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Chair falls into some of the same traps as the culture it’s trying to critique. The series turns out to be as much Bill’s story as it is Ji-Yoon’s, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. Peet and Wyman turn in some of their sharpest characterization with their portrait of a basically decent guy who’s been too blinkered by privilege for his own good (“Who gives a fuck how you’re seen?” he complains at one point, with the misguided indignation of a man who’s never once had to worry what others might think of him), and Duplass so expertly toes the line between charming and aggravating that even by the end, it’s tough to know exactly how to feel about him.
But far less time and energy is spent fleshing out other characters with an equal stake in the central storyline. Even as The Chair takes the students’ complaints in good faith, the students themselves are presented as an undifferentiated mass, and their arguments given to faculty characters to explain. Figures like Yaz (Nana Mensah), a popular young professor on track to becoming the department’s first tenured Black woman, and Lila (Mallory Low), a teaching fellow whose future is jeopardized by Bill’s screwups, are shunted to the sidelines, often treated more like talking points than fully realized individuals. At least Joan, an aging Chaucer scholar played by Holland Taylor, gets a delightful subplot involving low-stakes subterfuge and an eager IT guy — though her storyline registers as so distant from the main plot that it feels like an entirely different series at times.
“I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it exploded,” Ji-Yoon laments late in the season, and she’s right — both about Pembroke, which seems too quick to pat itself on the back for installing the department’s first female head, and about The Chair itself, which uses that appointment to make a point about the challenges of transforming an institution. It’s what makes the show both a breeze to watch, and a bit of a letdown. Like its protagonist, the series is too clever and well-intentioned to dislike. But in its determination to teach a lesson, it falls short of the brilliant art its characters have built their careers studying.
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