Befitting its academic setting, “The Chair” offers a doozy of a thesis statement.
“I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes,” says Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, played by the exhilarating Sandra Oh, in a moment of well-earned frustration about halfway through the Netflix limited series. The newly appointed chair of her university’s English department, Ji-Yoon is asked to tackle problem after problem at a dizzying pace. Some are institutional, ironed out only via a delicate balance of polite schmoozing and steadfast resolve. Others are personal, be it an inconvenient crush on a ragdoll of a professor (Jay Duplass) or behavioral issues with her obstinate young daughter (Everly Carganilla).
As the first woman and first woman of color to serve as chair, Ji-Yoon recognizes she’s the critical initial step in a longer movement to bring Pembroke University out of the
dark white ages. Accordingly, she feels pressured to embolden diverse, minority voices in a world long controlled primarily by men. But even though everyone agrees such change is necessary, some see her tactics as too pushy, and others see them as too soft. Some claim to welcome change while still clinging to established ways, and others demand immediate transformation, just not how Ji-Yoon had planned.
Co-created by Amanda Peet (the actor you may remember from “Togetherness” who’s now a first-time showrunner) and Annie Julia Wyman (a scholar with degrees from both Stanford and Harvard), the politics of upper academia are poked and prodded with glee throughout “The Chair,” but the bastion of liberal thought so often offered by campus life could just as easily be seen as broader satire of progressive inaction. Ji-Yoon has no enemies at Pembroke. They all want the same thing, or at least outwardly contend they do. And yet no one can agree enough to move in the right direction, which means everyone ends up right back where they started. “The Chair” is a story of how those trying the hardest to create change — who need progress the most — still get stuck with the proverbial bomb in their laps.
Weighty themes aside, Peet and Wyman’s series is far from a heavy watch. Tight episodes are buoyed by an ebullient passion for the collegiate experience, and seeing Sandra Oh play hot potato for six half-hour episodes is exactly as much fun as it sounds. Whether she’s sparring with the very visible old guard — highlighted by Holland Taylor’s sprightly put-upon Professor Hambling, Bob Balaban’s Professor Rentz, and the Dean himself, David Morse — or working on behalf of the fresh talent (mainly Professor McKay played by Nana Mensah), Oh brings a specificity to each interaction that conveys a long history with each individual.
Never is that more apparent than with Duplass’ Professor Bill Dobson; saying the two share an electric chemistry is both true and a disservice to the layered relationship revealed largely by performance. Bill is a widower, still discombobulated a year after losing his wife and sent spiraling again when his only daughter leaves for college. He typically steadies himself around Ji-Yoon, in part because he’s also harboring romantic feelings, but there’s also a rock-solid friendship forged over shared time in the fires of loss. (Ji-Yoon’s husband left years ago.) The will-they-won’t-they pull is always present, but Oh and Duplass lace it with worry over losing a workplace intimacy that exists without romance. That you can feel their fear over losing something so special, rather than being told that’s what’s holding them back, makes for a compellingly distinct central dynamic.
If “The Chair” were just a collegiate-level romantic-comedy, it would be a delight, boosted further by its brevity, but the show’s eagerness to cover more ground is both exciting and a bit much. When a clip of Bill making a Nazi salute in class goes viral, he’s attacked on all fronts. The students want him fired. The faculty sees an opportunity to bring in a guest lecturer (which opens the door for the show to introduce an all-time great celebrity cameo). Only Ji-Yoon is capable of assessing the situation with multi-dimensional thought — considering the flawed human being she knows while still holding accountable another white guy who thinks he’s above reproach.
How “The Chair” reduces students (and thus a younger generation of fast-acting liberals) to an angry mob can be frustrating. They’re too often thrown under the bus to make Bill a more complex, sympathetic figure. Similarly, the aging group of professors are a tad too comically old to be taken all that seriously; Professor McHale (Ron Crawford) is such an old fart — struggling to hear, falling asleep at random — he literally farts through a conversation, and even though Holland Taylor is 10 pounds of fun in a five-pound bag, her manic prof is required to forget her good reason one too many times. (Just wait for the word “fanny.”)
That makes Ji-Yoon — and her Gen X peers — the ones positioned as “in the right” most often, which I’m sure more than a few boomers, millennials, and zoomers would like a chance to argue against. Still, “The Chair’s” eagerness to unearth issues both bureaucratic and ideological as well as its willingness to work through those issues in reality makes it a curious debut from these two thoughtful creators. Peet and Wyman, along with series director Daniel Gray Longino, create a welcoming, authentic environment to explore their thesis, and they trust Duplass, Taylor, and especially Oh to convey every thought with the grace and wit it deserves. The limited series may lack the focus and follow-through needed to blow audiences away, but it certainly earned its notable position.
“The Chair” premieres in its entirety Friday, August 20 on Netflix.