Let me begin discussing Netflix’s new six-part series The Chair, which starts streaming Aug. 20, by stating my bias. As soon as I saw the trailer for the show starring Sandra Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, newly elected to the titular position at the English department of the prestigious (and fictional) Pembroke University, I immediately pleaded my case to review it. As a former student of the department of English at the University of Toronto, albeit two decades ago, the premise tickled so many of my fancies.
First off, there’s Oh playing a deliciously complicated career woman, the first chairwoman of colour who is somehow supposed to come up with all the answers to the woes that befall the department. Although joyous at being finally recognized for her talent, Kim immediately realizes she has to navigate several minefields in her new role.
No sooner than she sits and falls off of her chair – a perfect image of the state of affairs in the department – and chairs a meeting with the (aging) faculty, she’s summoned to Dean Paul Larson’s (David Morse) office. He hands her a list with the names of professors who are “averaging about five students a class” highlighted. Kim needs to get rid of colleagues who aren’t performing.
Then, there’s a conversation about recognizing an outstanding young teacher, Yasmine McKay (Nana Mensah), but Kim’s ideas about how to do so are immediately brushed off. She’s been tasked with bringing the “lumbering dinosaur” of the institution into modern times, but her hands have been tied. I know several people who will shake their heads in recognition.
Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), a bestselling author, is one of the stars of the department and the former chairman. But his personal life is a mess. He’s been mourning the death of his wife, and his daughter has gone off to study at a different university. There are some romantic feelings involved with Kim, which makes managing Dobson a headache. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, Kim has to also negotiate her fractious relationships with her young daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carginilla) and her father, Habi (Ji-yong Lee).
The setup for the series felt familiar. As someone who delighted in wandering around the downtown U of T campus, attending classes and enjoying the classics, as well as “world literatures in English” – while at the same time was figuring out a thesis topic through a postcolonial studies lens – there was a contrast between enjoying and critiquing the institution I was a part of. I intimately understood the mental gymnastics someone like Kim has to perform.
Back then, TA positions were hard to come by. These days, I hear horror stories from scholar friends, especially those from underrepresented groups, seeking tenure track positions, about the hoops they have to jump through in order to pursue research in their specialized interests.
And even if you aren’t familiar with this particular outpost of the ivory towers, have no inclination toward Chaucer or roll your eyes every time you hear a reference to Moby Dick, the interpersonal relations between Kim, her colleagues and her family, will be of interest.
The way in which Kim is pulled between two of her closest friends and champions – McKay and Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor in a delightful turn as an intemperate teacher) – is especially compelling. McKay wants Kim to use her position to bring about much-needed change, while Hambling is struggling with a feeling of being overlooked.
Meanwhile, in the middle of one of his lectures, Dobson makes a faux-pas. It’s captured on video, and – without context – becomes a controversial meme that goes viral within the student body. There are agitations, and an attempt at a Socratic Circle at a streetside townhall goes wrong in all the ways it possibly could.
Trying her best to mediate between everyone, Kim often feels like she’s failing, although she’s perfectly aware of how the odds are stacked up against her. Oh delivers all of these beats of her character with alacrity, and she’s ably supported by other cast members.
The Chair is fast-paced with some pretty snippy writing, which makes it a breeze to watch. And while it does offer viewers some insights into the complicated world of Kim, the series didn’t offer any discerning lessons and ended with a bit of an unsatisfying cop out.
Coming at a time when the issue of teaching critical race theory has become a hot-button topic in the United States, or when underrepresented groups in Canada continue to rally against inequities, many people are looking to fiction as a salve from their reality. The Chair, then, isn’t really a balm as much as it is a mirror.
Hopefully, it’s just the first chapter of a longer narrative.
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