After a year in which many institutions have been forced to address their history and internal culture, Netflix’s darkly comedic drama The Chair feels particularly timely. Set at the prestigious Pembroke University, Sandra Oh (Killing Eve) stars as Dr Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman to become chair of the ailing English department, which faces challenges such as a self-destructing professor embroiled in scandal and declining enrolment driven down by an out-of-touch faculty.
“I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes,” Ji-Yoon says, setting the stage for a story in which the struggle of being a professional woman is a focal point. The Chair cast deftly explores three generations of workplace injustice through the trio of Dr Kim, Professor Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor, Hollywood) and rising star Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah, 13 Reasons Why).
Ji-Yoon’s landmark hiring quickly takes a sour turn as her personal life comes under intense scrutiny, with the senior academic forced to balance what she feels is best for the university with concerns over how she will be perceived by her male peers. Her promotion causes the fiery Professor Hambling to reflect on how her own career has been hampered by a sexist establishment, demanding “acknowledgement” in one heart-wrenching scene. The problem persists for incoming scholars, as inventive teaching methods, popular classes and a social media following aren’t enough to earn Professor McKay the respect of the self-described “dinosaurs” of the department – played by Bob Balaban and Ron Crawford.
This is all interesting stuff and the show might have been stronger had it devoted itself to deeper character studies of this core trio and their experiences. Instead, the addition of Jay Duplass’ Professor Bill Dobson provides a less compelling distraction, pulling The Chair into ‘cancel culture’ discourse. After inexplicably performing a Nazi salute in one of his lectures, the once-popular academic finds himself at the centre of a social media storm that sparks campus protests and petitions demanding he be sacked from the department.
There’s something to be said for The Chair’s argument that, at least in some cases, the path towards redemption shouldn’t be inaccessible, nor should knee-jerk reactions be considered a substitute for meaningful long-term change. But that Dobson himself is such an insufferable oaf undermines these valid points and makes these scenes harder to sit through, while the character’s romance with Ji-Yoon is never particularly well-established.
Perhaps that can be chalked up to a lack of time, as The Chair clocks in with a relatively brief duration of six half-hour episodes, in which it has given itself several complex topics to unpack. For instance, another subplot explores the difficult relationship between Korean-American Ji-Yoon and her adoptive Latina daughter Ju Ju, as the single mother attempts to educate her on both cultures. This too is a fascinating story to explore and delivers a couple of strong moments, but as a secondary subplot in an already short miniseries, it would have surely benefitted from more time to breathe.
Overall, showrunner Amanda Peet provides sharp insight into the challenges faced by women and people of colour in the staunchly traditional world of academia, bolstered by strong performances and effective moments of comic relief. That said, The Chair bites off more than it can chew by expanding further into cancel culture and personal identity – topics which would require a few more episodes to properly explore – with the added effect of taking valuable time away from the principal characters.