“I wanted to read novels and poems as long as I could,” Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) tells her daughter Ju-Ju (Everly Carganilla) when asked why she became a professor. As the new Netflix series “The Chair,” co-created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, unfolds, we see how the business of academics can so easily obfuscate the passions of those who work within it. Expertly skewing contemporary campus politics, including a delicious subplot with a celebrity cameo best left unspoiled, “The Chair” also, finally, gives Sandra Oh a starring vehicle worthy of her expertly calibrated comic chops.
When we first meet Ji-Yoon, she’s walking through a quaint liberal arts campus; autumn leaves strewn about as Vivaldi plays. You can feel the heavy prestige of this place. This is Pembroke, a fictional minor Ivy, with an 87% white enrollment. Ji-Yoon soon enters a building where she walks past portrait after portrait of old white men. She reaches a door that reads: Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, Chair, English Department. The office is all wood panels and mahogany. You can practically hear Ron Burgundy mentioning something about scotch and leather-bound books. As she sits down at her new desk, a wide grin on her face, the literal chair breaks.
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Ji-Yoon has recently been elected the new chair of her department, with lofty goals including helping the next generation of women academics succeed. Like Dr. Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a Black woman who she wants to help gain the tenure she rightly deserves. Ji-Yoon soon learns from Dean Larson (David Morse) that her real job is to bring enrollment in the department back up—it’s dropped 30%—or convince the three highest paid, lowest enrolled professors to retire.
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Among those on the list is Dr. Elliot Rentz (a delightfully fuddy Bob Balaban), who used to be a hotshot but fails to connect with the new generation of students. Due to a scheduling mishap, his under-enrolled course Survey of the American Letters 1850 – 1918 has to merge with Yaz’s much more popular course, entitled “Sex and the Novel.” Observing her unconventional teaching methods, like having the students tweet their favorite lines of “Moby Dick” or write rap songs about the text a la “Hamilton,” he thinks she just wants to be buddies with them, failing to appreciate her ability to get them excited about 150-year-old, 600+ page allegory about the whaling industry.
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Yaz knows Shakespeare better than her old white male peers but isn’t showy about it, despite the fact that none of them bother to learn how to say her name correctly. She even tries to show Rentz that she loves Melville for the same reasons he does, though he seems hellbent on not believing it. Mensah imbues Yaz with grace while allowing just enough of her disappointment and anger underneath to surface as she questions why she should stay at a university that is just now in 2021, maybe going to have its first Black tenured professor in the English department.
Also on Ji-Yoon’s list is Dr. Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), a trailblazing feminist Chaucer professor who has recently been relegated to a basement office under the student health center. Taylor is clearly having a blast with this part. At one point, she regales Ji-Yoon with a story about a man she gave a handjob to after learning she received tenure, although she can’t remember his name, quipping, “He owes me an orgasm, whoever he is.” Later, when tracking down a student who left her a sexist rating on RateMyProfessors.com, she berates him with a hilarious and impassioned speech about how Chaucer was a badass whose major work “The Canterbury Tales” has pubic hair, fart jokes, and a story about a man kissing a woman’s butthole.
But it’s not all fun and games. As Ji-Yoon gets caught up in other administrative duties, she fails to help Joan file a Title IX suit against the school, leaving Joan stranded in the basement. As she reminisces about her past and contemplates her future, Joan’s frustration boils over as she realizes that although she broke down doors, she still sacrificed many of her ambitions just for a seat at the table.
Rounding out the main cast is bad boy professor Bill (Jay Duplass), cut from the same cloth as Michael Douglas in “Wonder Boys” and Donald Sutherland in “Animal House.” Described equally by a female student (Ella Rubin) as “smart and sad and hot” and by Ji-Yoon’s dad (Ji-yong Lee) as “crumpled,” this Peet and Wyman fully understand Duplass’ squirrely sexual energy. We learn that Bill and Ji-Yoon were hired at the same time years earlier and that the entire faculty knows they are attracted to each other. Oh and Duplass build on Bill and Ji-Yoon’s will-they-or-won’t-they energy until the sexual tension feels like a balloon about to pop.
Once Pembroke’s star professor and chair of the department, he’s been spiralling since the death of his wife a year earlier. When an out-of-context moment in a lecture goes viral, his inability to understand his own culpability threatens to ruin both his and Ji-Yoon’s careers. As she puts it, he’s one of those men who can do something edgy, assuming there are no consequences for his actions. When he tries to turn his apology into a lecture, the students don’t accept it, pointing out the inequality of a forum where they have no power against a tenured white male professor who writes op-eds for the NYT.
This all works because the writers are smart enough to show how something small can snowball, but also how something “small” often carries more weight than it appears. Duplass walks the fine line between charming and skeevy, adding just the right amount of pathos to the role so that, like Ji-Yoon, you can’t help but fall for his charm, even in the middle of a scolding. While the students at first parrot meaningless cancel culture phrases, as Bill digs his hole deeper, their logic forces him to even reconsider his own actions.
Ji-Yoon describes chairing the English department as “inheriting a ticking time bomb,” and yet that’s not all she’s juggling. At home, she’s got her father, who only speaks Korean. He makes a big deal about how he can’t communicate with her adopted Mexican daughter Ju-Ju, despite all three of them knowing English. Oh taps into the deep emotional well she honed during her time on “Grey’s Anatomy” as she struggles to connect with her fireball daughter and stubborn father. This blending of cultures pays off wonderfully in the episode “The Last Bus In Town” by writer Jennifer Kim.
Like her duties as chair, it’s up to Oh to hold all these subplots together, and she does so with aplomb. There is never a wrong emotional beat or comical tick from the veteran actress. In the early episodes, it feels like we don’t get to know why Ji-Yoon told her daughter she wanted to read novels and poems as long as she could because we rarely see her doing just that. However, by the season’s end, it’s clear that is exactly the point.
Women of color often don’t get to just be. They’re expected to lead the charge for progress or to clean up everyone else’s messes. In the few glimpses, we do get of Ji-Yoon teaching, we see the joy beaming from Oh’s expressive face, and a light exudes from her entire body. This is her element and Oh perfectly, silently expresses the beguiling pleasure many of us only find between the pages of a good book.
Tightly written and expertly cast, “The Chair” deftly weaves absurdist comedy gold from what happens when a calling and a profession morphs into an industry where neither progress nor passion can blossom. [A]
“The Chair” debuts on Netflix on August 20.