OK it’s not the best post title. You’d think I could do better with a show called “The Chair” but apparently, I can’t. Anyway, I did really enjoy this Netflix series recently. I’ve got a few thoughts about it floating around in my head, so I thought I’d do a review-type thingy.
I’ve always thought that in another life I might have really enjoyed being an English Lit professor. I didn’t go down that road for a number of reasons, but I think I would have loved a job where I could live in books. I could spend my days thinking about them, talking about them, and sharing them with others. I loved being a lit major at a liberal arts college for just that reason, and being a professor always seemed to me to be a way to extend that, indefinitely. In some ways, The Chair cured me of that romanticized vision! Yes, loving books is a big part of it. But another part is departmental politics, worry about enrollments and the future of the field, losing office space, IT related stress, and a bit of racism, ageism, and sexism thrown in.
The show follows Ji-Yoon Kim, the first female chair of the English department at prestigious Pembroke University. It opens with Ji-Yoon about to assume that role for first time at the start of a new semester. She expects to face some resistance from the old guard, but she also wants to usher the department into the 21st century. She wants to build and encourage diversity. The deans are worried about enrollment in the English department (kids are going for STEM fields rather than humanities) and that’s also something she expects to confront and hopefully overcome.
What she doesn’t expect is the face resistance to the tenure of a young, Black colleague (who would be the department’s first Black female tenured professor), a PR nightmare surrounding her friend/crush, and the egos of the elderly, long time professors. She finds herself trapped between the old guard which is largely white and male, and the demand for more diversity from students and donors. She’s also trying to be a single parent to her (adopted, a fact that her daughter brings up repeatedly) daughter Ju-Hee (aka “Ju Ju”) who is strong willed, intelligent, precocious and, well, let’s just say not always appropriate.
The show was co-written and co-created by Amanda Peet, the actress known for TV shows like Dirty John, Brockmire, and Togetherness, as well as films including The Whole Nine Yards, Something’s Gotta Give, and Identity Thief. I did some googling when I learned this, and discovered that she’s also the the writer of the play Our Very Own Carlin McCollough and the co-author of the children’s book Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein. Perhaps that’s why the show has an appearance from David Duchovny (best known from The X Files), playing himself, who I learned has degrees from Princeton and Yale in English Literature, and started a PhD at Yale though his dissertation remains unfinished. He’s also the author of four novels. He plays himself on the show and his literary cred is important to the plot. I wrote a bit a while ago about how authors and actors are similar, and this show is further proof that it’s true.
But Hollywood fun aside, the show walks a fine line, portraying struggles that have implications for the larger world. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out where it stands in terms of those issues. Ji-Yoon’s friend/crush/”it’s complicated” is fellow English professor, widower, Bill Dobson. When Bill does a mocking Hitler salute in class (part of a discussion about fascism and absurdism) an out of context video goes viral on TikTik, and Bill is branded a Nazi in public opinion. Students protest, donors threaten to withdraw funding, and it’s Ji-Yoon’s problem. She knows that Bill isn’t a Nazi, and understands that he was giving the gesture in a mocking way. She’s also, perhaps, somewhat biased in his favor because of their friendship. But the optics are bad for the department. She encourages Bill to apologize, but when Bill’s “sorry if you were offended by my joke” doesn’t go over well, she’s in a moral quandary. Does she discipline Bill for something that she thinks was blown out of proportion for the sake of optics? Does she stand by Bill and take on responsibility for the consequences?
I think this plotline has a dual satirical purpose. One is that Ji-Yoon, an Asian woman in a position of power, has to clean up after her white, male subordinate. Another is as a critique of so called “cancel culture.” The show makes it clear that Bill doesn’t deserve to be fired for his mistake. A bad joke? Maybe. A hate crime? Probably not. People who criticize “cancel culture” often object to white men facing consequences for their actions. In this case, Bill doesn’t deserve the consequence he faces. He’s kind of a jerk for his refusal to apologize, but other than that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. This suggests that Bill is a victim in some way, which I don’t think is intended on the show’s part. I think that there is some justification for satirizing people’s quickness to throw stones, but the show doesn’t really take the time to explore any nuance with the issue. By centering this storyline, the show has been criticized for sidelining the stories of Ji-Yoon, Yaz McKay (who is set to be the first tenured black professor in the department) and Joan Hambling (who 30 years earlier became the first female professor in the English department) That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this plot point. I did. And I think it’s central focus is interesting in a show that explores how POC are sidelined in academia. Are the creators of the show attempting to call attention to the focus on the problems of white men? Or did they fall into the trap that so many creators have before, of thinking this person’s problems are the most interesting?
Overall, the show left me with the sense that systemic change is hard and takes time. Sometimes you need to take two steps back to take one step forward. It finishes in a place that could be an ending, or it could be a springboard for another season that hopefully further explores some of these ideas.
Overall it was nice food for thought and a fun, witty look for me at the road untaken. I’m aware that it’s not always an accurate, realistic portrayal of academia, but that doesn’t really matter to me so much. It’s a comedy and things are played for humor. It also has elements of drama and some things are played for dramatic effect. That’s as it should be. Are there many “realistic” TV shows (outside of documentary)? It’s a fun, witty, sometimes thought provoking depiction of characters and plots. It makes us think about the real world, but it doesn’t have to reflect the real world 100% in order to do that.