TV: The Chair

Netflix miniseries The Chair zips by so quickly it almost feels unfinished, but even so it’s satisfying as an insightful snapshot of university politics as a reflection of a troubled zeitgeist. Set in the fictional, northeastern Pembroke University, the show stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly elevated chair of the English department. Ji-Yoon is the first female chair of a historically white, male-dominated department, and as such she has ambitions to transform the program, such as elevating impressive young colleague Yaz (Nana Mensah) to a distinguished lectureship. Unfortunately, faculty politics immediately interfere with her best intentions, forcing constant compromise—and things get worse when her close friend and colleague Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) ignites a firestorm by tossing off a mocking Nazi salute during a lecture. The resulting professional chaos ultimately embroils the entire department, even as Ji-Yoon’s personal situation—raising a perverse, adopted daughter named Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla) and balancing her feelings for Bill with her professional duties—make her job even more difficult, threatening to destroy her tenure in department leadership.

Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, The Chair is a winning series that confronts the current, contentious political climate, using its campus as a microcosm of the wider American discourse around institutional bias, social justice, and where they collide. If this occasionally makes it read like a more coherent than usual internet comments section, it’s still a refreshing, valiant attempt to deal with issues of free speech, racism, and systemic prejudice without making broad, didactic value judgements about its many perspectives. The key to making it work is Oh’s performance, which lends considerable accessibility to Ji-Yoon’s struggle as a woman of color to cement her authority, in the face of constant interference. This includes the mostly harmless but problematic behavior of her friend and potential romantic interest Bill, whose inherent privilege is central to her struggles, even as he remains incredibly likable. Oh and Duplass—both in superb form here—have terrific, comfortable chemistry that provides the show’s dramatic backbone. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is terrific, including Mensah, Carganilla, Bob Balaban, an amusingly stunt-cast David Duchovny, Terry Morse, and especially the delightfully feisty Holland Taylor. In the end, The Chair might have benefited from a little more meat on its bones, but what is on display is funny, affecting, and quite finely tuned.

 

 

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