Why Netflix’s The Chair should be your next box set
Ivan Radford | On 30, Aug 2021
Ever since the heyday of Grey’s Anatomy, the world has needed a chance to join together in admiration for the remarkable talent that is Sandra Oh. While Killing Eve has certainly given her a high-profile role to sink her teeth into, it’s Netflix’s The Chair that we’ve really been waiting for – a six-part showcase for Oh’s brilliance that lets her be thoughtful, heartbreaking, passionate, frustrated and, at the same time, very funny.
The comedy-drama sees her play Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, who is appointed the chair of English at Pembroke University. The first woman to take on the prestigious post, she enters into the position with the aim of bringing the department into the 21st century, shaking things up and disrupting stale tradition. The problem, though, is that tradition sits heavy on anyone’s desk, especially in academia, and shaking desks up isn’t an easy task.
Making things particularly difficult for her are all manner of meddling colleagues with their own baggage and issues. There’s veteran lecturer Elliot (Bob Balaban), whose classes are long out of fashion but who sees moving with the times a form of pandering to fickle youth. There’s long-suffering professor Joan (Holland Taylor), who’s been overlooked for promotion in favour of male counterparts and has seen her office shunted to the basement. There’s the impressive up-and-comer Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a Black female scholar who Kim is keen to promote. And there’s pot-smoking Bill (Jay Duplass), who is struggling to deal with the loss of his wife, let alone teach fascism to his students.
It’s a thoughtless and tasteless salute from Bill during a lecture that really sets the events of the series in motion, as the students campaign for his removal and for an apology. That opens the floodgates for a whole raft of topical issues, which creators Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman dissect with depth and confidence. While cancel culture is the headline subject, it uses it as a springboard to raise a string of questions about authority and its limits, about the importance of listening even when teaching, and about the line between compromise and idealism. At the same time, the pushback against Yaz’s promotion also leads us to consider the institutional racism and sexism at play. And, throughout, the weary, out-of-his-depth Dean (David Morse) attempts to keep things both respectable and respectful.
There are only six half-hour episodes in which to do all this, but the series does so with a precise intersectional messiness, allowing for nuance and room for interpretation and confusion. And so, while it’s apparent that Bill isn’t a Nazi, the series doesn’t excuse the immature professor’s behaviour, or his refusal to take the matter seriously. While Balaban’s amusing fusty and stubborn old-timer staunchly draws a line between diversity and success, the series makes it clear that he’s operating under a false dichotomy. Underscoring the ensemble’s tensions is rampant ageism, but that also opens up a discussion of intergenerational clashes and communication – the kind of calm, reasoned debate that our social media age wouldn’t normally give breathing space to.
To do all this in approximately 3 hours is a feat in itself, but The Chair manages to do it while also having a sense of humour, picking up each complex strand with the lightest and funniest of touches. The cast are the key to pulling off that balancing act, from Nana Mensah’s wonderfully enthusiastic, engaging teacher to Holland Taylor’s hilarious (yet heartbreakingly frustrated) wallflower – and not to mention Everly Carganilla as Kim’s adoptive daughter, Ju-Hee. At the centre of it all, Jay Duplass and Sandra Oh have a charming, sincere chemistry that sells their will-they-won’t-they, should-they-shouldn’t-they attraction, without it detracting from the bigger picture. And, holding it all together, is a flawless turn by Sandra Oh, who moves from a determination to modernise to dismay and alarm at every effort that she makes falling apart. One late cameo from another well-known actor is an inspired send-up of how tricky it can be for the humanities to attract more students, resulting in the most memorable, and affectionate, portrait of academic life since David Lodge’s Changing Places. “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb,” says Kim halfway at point, “because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.” As the chaos erupts in slow-motion around her, you’ll struggle to look away.
The Chair is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.