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The Chair

Co-created by Amanda Peet, Annie Julia Wyman 

Netflix, 2021

Review by Hannah Lowe


The Chair, Netflix’s quick-moving satire of American academic life, stars Sandra Oh (of Killing Eve fame) as Dr Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly appointed, first female, first minority chair of the English department at the fictional Pembroke College. This department, comprised of both brilliant and beleaguered academics is, by the second episode, a moral battleground of overlapping conflicts. The old guard of white male professors wield institutional power, but can’t attract students to their classes, while Yaz (Nena Mensah), a young and brilliant black lecturer, has no job security, despite an outstanding academic record and oversubscribed lectures, where students engage with Moby Dick through hip hop and Twitter. The Dean has his own celebrity-fixated agenda, shoe-horning in David Duchovny over Yaz to give the Distinguished Lecture. Meanwhile, grief-stricken Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), has pulled an ill-advised Nazi salute in class, while trying to explain the power of art to challenge fascism. Proving that what happens in the classroom doesn’t stay in the classroom, Bill finds his job on the line as a recording of his gesture goes viral. The students march on campus in front of reporters and news cameras, while inside, professors scratch their chins and engage in increasingly high-stakes manoeuvring.

As an academic in an English department, I can testify that this seemingly untangleable knot of issues plagues the contemporary landscape of higher education. At Pembroke, enrolments are down, with the humanities department under pressure to justify its existence. Ji-Yoon’s plans to tackle these are never heard, as she becomes embroiled in a spiralling furore, fire-fighting the escalating drama around Bill, while trying to promote woefully underrepresented women of colour and keep safe the jobs of older academics.

Issues of sexism, racism, ageism, economics and cancel culture are deftly woven into each half hour episode, as Ji-Yoon flounders between ideology and practicality both at work and home. Ju Ju, her adopted Mexican daughter, keeps running away, prefers Bill to Ji-Yoon, and contests whether she belongs to the Korean community. Just as Ji-Yoon’s authority is undermined at Pembroke, it seems even more out of grasp when she insists ‘I’m your real Mom’, as Ju Ju sulks in the car’s back seat. Power and allegiance prove to be slippery entities in The Chair. The only sure bond seems to be the will-they-won’t-they romance between Bill and Ji-Yoon, the outcome of which provides a refreshing flip of gender relations.

The outdated academics form an amusing threesome, comprised of the decrepit Professor McHale (Ron Crawford), Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) as the department’s fading grand-dame, and Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban), a former academic top dog, who stares on in horror as the students in Yaz’s class perform a Hamilton-esque textual intervention into Moby Dick. And the performance is cringey, making the audience wonder if Yaz’s ‘flipped classroom’ is a good substitute for more conventional pedagogy. But the elders, all once-progressive trailblazers of ‘American Letters’, seem baffled by a rapidly changing youth culture fired by technology – Instagram and websites like ‘Rate My Lecturer’ where students vent their antipathy. The few enrolled in Joan’s class are unmoved by her take on Chaucer. ‘I don’t cater to consumer demands’, she claims defiantly before burning a pile of evaluations, the fire in her office bin a metaphor for a department about to go up in flames.

The series is never didactic, instead pulling the audience into the various moral quagmires. Should Bill apologise? Should lectures be entertainment? Who has the power, when learning and achievement are linked to revenue? If there is criticism to be had of The Chair, it might be that the students are mainly seen through the eyes of the academics, chanting with placards below Ji-Yoon’s window and forming a mob-like gathering around Bill when he tries to contextualise his actions but fails to give a sincere apology. The show’s portrayal of the students’ self-righteousness, and ominous threats to take action if Yaz isn’t given tenure, are unsympathetic to young people who, in my view, are the true victims of the monetisation of higher education. And where too are the ranks of (often underpaid, arguably exploited) Graduate Teaching Assistants, who deliver the bulk of the teaching in American universities?  Studying in the US in the late nineties, I saw first-hand the consumer-driven culture of American higher education – a campus of 5* facilities, much contesting of low grades, an outrageous amount of student debt. Perhaps naively, I didn’t realise the same fate awaited UK higher education. And yet The Chair is at times very funny, and – still trending in Netflix’s Top Ten – is a series non-academics might enjoy more than those at the coal face. The Chair manages to deliver, with great humour, an unsettling picture of academia’s unsettled world.

Photo courtesy of Netflix