Netflix’s The Chair finds plenty of comic targets as it explores the insidious structural harms of contemporary academic life. By Dan Dixon.
In 1820, Arthur Schopenhauer – the philosopher who wrote, “If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world” – became a university lecturer. Unknown at the time, he deliberately scheduled his lectures to coincide with those of the far more popular Hegel, a decision that led Schopenhauer to face the humiliating choice of either delivering a lecture series to an empty room or altering his schedule. He refused to reschedule, ended the course and shortly afterwards gave up teaching.
The academic humanities continue to operate as a system of fierce and petty individualism, although their Darwinian logic is sporadically tempered by flashes of humane idealism and generosity. This is the world of The Chair, a new six-part Netflix series. The action occurs somewhere in America’s chilly, autumnal north-east at the fictitious Pembroke University, which is described by one character as a “lower-tier Ivy”: a campus of stately low-set brick Neoclassical buildings and dark, wood-panelled offices.
Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) is the first woman to become chair of Pembroke’s English department, a position that’s a poisoned chalice. Oh plays Ji-Yoon as a woman with a complex blend of intelligent kindness and deep ambition, keen to defend her discipline and department and do her bit to remedy the field’s centuries-long inequities while also satisfying the profit-conscious dean.
The foundational tensions of The Chair involve the relentless challenges faced by Ji-Yoon, a woman of colour attempting to succeed within a system built to exclude her. She is forced to battle the intersecting adversaries of the traditional university – academies constructed on principles of privileged exclusivity – and the modern neoliberal university, which presents itself as a bastion of inclusivity and humanism while treating staff as commodities rather than human beings. This is a problem Australian institutions share with those in America.
Ji-Yoon is tasked with juggling numerous incompatible objects, à la knives and balloons. In their first meeting, the dean asks her to persuade three “old-timers” averaging five enrolments per course – including feminist Chaucerian Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) and Melville scholar Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) – to take forced retirement. Meanwhile, she hopes to use her new role to shepherd the brilliant, young, female and Black scholar Yasmin McKay (Nana Mensah) – who is popular with students – towards tenure.
However, her focus is diverted by the need to conduct increasingly frantic damage control for her primary foil and colleague, Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass with an energy that recalls his performance in Transparent. He’s a middle-aged man recycling once-effective empty gestures, reliant on a scruffy charm that he is only now discovering is limited in its power. Dobson is grieving his wife, who died a year earlier, and in this vertiginous state he playfully and – to say the least, inadvisably – gives a Sieg Heil during a lecture to performatively enhance a passing reference to World War II.
The Nazi salute is filmed by students and the rapidly disseminated footage functions as the series’ MacGuffin, driving a sometimes perceptive, sometimes superficial, exploration of on-campus cancel culture.
Ji-Yoon’s efforts to contain the fallout from this incident, along with the complexities of her friendship (or something more?) with Dobson, inevitably complicate her work as chair.
Ji-Yoon is also caring for her daughter, the sharp, wilfully stubborn and repeatedly wayward Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), who is negotiating her early years of elementary school and takes a familial but inconvenient shine to Dobson.
The compounding nature of Ji-Yoon’s burdens as a single mother and woman of colour clarifies the insidious structural harms that ensure universities remain domains of historical white male privilege. What does it mean to become the first female chair when the humanities seem to be collapsing around their practitioners, haemorrhaging money and students, constantly required to justify their very existence, their profitability?
“I don’t feel like I inherited an English department,” Ji-Yoon tells McKay. “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.”
Tonally, The Chair is a dramedy that extracts its laughs from a mixture of cringeworthy awkwardness, comedy-of-manners repartee and straightforward slapstick. In an early Looney Tunes-esque highlight, Duplass rockets like a crash-test dummy from a speeding electric scooter into a bush from which emerges, moments later, his leaf-covered head. The show would be better, I think, if it committed wholeheartedly to this style, which briskly undercuts the grave self-seriousness of intradepartmental conflict. Instead, it never settles on a definitive tone, at times careening between a sophisticated rendering of interpersonal dynamics and artlessly clunky caricature. It’s a symptom of the show’s thematic maximalism, which doesn’t quite suit its roughly three-hour total run time.
This philosophy of excess is exemplified by music cues tastefully selected but distributed heavy-handedly (Talking Heads, Vampire Weekend, Destroyer, The Smiths and Phoenix all feature). These songs are deployed a handful of times per episode, hurrying us from plot point to plot point as if the audience needs to be grabbed and swivelled towards the appropriate emotion.
Watching The Chair can resemble seeing a 1000-page book reduced to six brief lectures. In grappling with privilege, racism, misogyny, ageism, cancel culture, the rise of university managerialism, the crisis of the humanities and a succession of personal calamities, it never quite works out how to balance these subjects in such a way that they seem not to be jostling for space. To be fair, this is also how working within an English department – something I have done intermittently since 2015 – can feel.
Occasionally the show forsakes nuance, not in the noble service of getting a laugh but simply for the sake of speedily advancing the narrative. These moments include a scene in which a character is inexplicably cruel to Dobson about his late wife, several that reduce students to caricatures of patronising wokeness and the oddly unethical and bafflingly clumsy actions of an IT support worker.
It’s not that The Chair is inadequately true to life – it’s not a documentary, and it’s not trying to be one – but rather that it’s too often inconsistent on its own terms. Yet the performances are extraordinary: Oh is often so virtuosic that she seems to create the world around her, and Balaban is delightfully watchable as a meek and seething man out of his time. And the stories it tells are, for the most part, funny, smart and heartfelt.
Despite its rightful cynicism about the dire state of universities, The Chair is appealingly sentimental, even idealistic, about the power of literary studies. Near the end of the series, as she teaches a class on Emily Dickinson, Ji-Yoon asks a room of eager students why hope is in fact the thing with feathers. She endures so much to ensure that such questions can be asked. I hope it is worth it.
The Chair is now showing on Netflix.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 28, 2021 as "Liberal farce".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial