Is It Satire, Or Is It College?
A Little Later Than Usual: The Chair
During the era of Peak TV, I’ve never really known what to do with Sandra Oh. I’ve admired her film work, from her charming performance in the undervalued Canadian comedy Last Night to her superb performances in such varied movies as Sideways, Rabbit Hole and Hard Candy. Her television performances, however, have almost always left me cold. In a series that I found as problematic as Grey’s Anatomy, her Christina Yang always struck as the most problematic character — a brilliant surgeon who barely seemed able to function as a human being, utterly destroying the careers of all the men she had affairs with. Her working in Killing Eve was generally much better, but it always paled under the extraordinary talent of Jodie Comer. Many were shocked when Oh lost the Emmy to Comer in 2018; I wasn’t.
Similarly, neither film not television has ever truly known what to make of Amanda Peet. Always so much better than the material she was often given, she’s had the grave misfortune in starring of two of the truly worst comedies ever made: Saving Silverman and Whipped in the same year. She does better in supporting roles — Igby Goes Down and Something’s Gotta Give, but when she’s been put in the lead, the results are rarely promising. Her work on TV during the first decade of this century has been generally uninspired: Jack and Jill was a muddled WB series and I’ve previous mentioned just how horrible her character was on the mess that was Studio 60. Over the last several years, however, her material and performances have gotten better — her work in the criminally undervalued HBO comedy Togetherness was a gem and she was wonderful in the much-beloved IFC comedy Brockmire.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Oh would find her best material at the hands of Peet in the inspired and far-too-plausible new Netflix series The Chair. Peet is listed as a writer and producer (her husband David Benioff, the novelist and co-creator of a minor series known as Game of Thrones) has created a series where Oh has taken the role as the first woman of color to be ‘the chair’ of an English department at a major university. Ji-Yoon Kim wants to shake things up, which if we know anything about university is something that no college ever wants to do. One of the opening scenes has her meeting with her fellow professors, who charitably could be said the average age of the typical Fox viewer and for all the tendencies of colleges being hotbeds of liberalism, are just as resistant to change. She is given almost a minimum of support by the dean (David Morse, quietly hysterical) and doesn’t seem to get much pull from anything of the institution. In the Pilot she tries to help one of her friends and one of the few female professors (Holland Taylor, wonderful) try to get her office moved out of the gym. This is clearly being sent as a message for her to retire. When Ji-Yoon tries to get this done as a Title 9 violation, Joan is met by an administrator barely out of college herself, with no experience who greets her changing into a thong. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.
The only people who are of her generation of Yaz McKay (Nana Mesnah) a brilliant African-American writer of journalism who is treated with no respect by anybody, least of all her peers. Trying delicately to balance things with a failing professor (the always wondrous Bob Balaban) who clearly hasn’t changed his methods of teaching since, maybe the Ford Administration) Ji-Yoon tries to put them together, something neither likes for a moment, not the least because I’m relatively sure Elliot thought the Civil Right movement achieved equality. The other is the equally troubled Bill Dobson, played memorably by Jay Duplass. (Jay is Mark Duplass’ brother, and together they produced Togetherness. Turnabout is fair play.)
Bill has been drinking and struggling with the death of his wife for more than a year and has been phoning in for what appears to be months. This is awkward for Ji-Yoon because she and Bill were having an affair right up until the days of his wife’s death and now she has to be his boss. In the end of the Pilot, she tells Bill to shape up and the episode ends with him seeming to right himself and teach a real class for the first time in he doesn’t know how long. In another series, this would be the moment he turns his career and life around. But in illustrating a point, he gives a mock Sieg Heil, a student films it, it goes viral and two days later, the students are around Ji-Yoon’s office with signs like ‘Down with Professor Hitler’. I have a feeling things can only get worse.
The Chair isn’t the typical for Netflix, not so much in quality — it’s among the best I’ve seen from the streaming services in awhile — but in its tone. This is a show set amongst the world of academia and it’s filled with classical music rather than all the rock we usually hear. Even the music we hear at the end is more sixties and seventies rock (which you honestly think most of the English department listen to in their younger days and dismissed as ‘noise’) It doesn’t just argue about the inflexibility of old age and death, as both The Kominsky Method and Grace & Frankie have done exceptionally, but the age and death of institutions. In the Pilot, the dean basically tells Ji-Yoon how ‘catastrophic’ the situation is and she herself seems to know that’s she come at the end of the party. Were it just the problem of the aging of the faculty it would be one thing, but it doesn’t help that the ‘young Turks’ are in their forties. Combine with the equal rigidness of the Millennials and Gen Z and you can see very clearly that not only may there be no hope for these institutions; the institutions themselves don’t want to change. It’s as if the writers of The Wire turned their attention to colleges, and it’s not a pretty picture.
However, if I’ve made the series sound to dry, I assure you The Chair is also marvelously funny. I really wish the problems between the Greatest Generation and Generation Z were being lampooned, but I think we all know better. I’m also intrigued by the problems Ji-Yoon has with her adopted daughter who clearly has issues with boundaries that make you pretty sure this is how a serial killer acts when they’re young. There’s also the fact that academics don’t like being called on their misquoting; when Yaz calls the Dean on his quoting Shakespeare, he dismisses her as if she’d just called him for farting in public.
I find it strange The Chair has yet to be renewed the way so many Netflix series are on what appears to be a whim. Do Peet and her crew just plan for it to be a limited series or do they have plans beyond this? But as someone who, given his own druthers would be in his forty-eighth semester of college, I really hope that the service and the writers give it tenure.
My score: 4.75 stars.