“I don’t feel like I inherited an English department,” Professor Ji-yoon Kim (played by Sandra Oh) says exasperatedly during The Chair. “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.” That line broadly sums up the whole premise of the six-episode show – Kim’s juggling act called life becoming increasingly more precarious as she tries to manage racism, sexism and more in her professional life.
Kim is a lecturer at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, and has just been made the first female chair of the English department. She’s clearly excited and has big plans to “shake up” the school’s status quo now an old white man isn’t filling her position. But she soon realises that not only is being the chair a much more thankless task than she first realised but also that the power is not really in her hands, as everyone including the Dean and his wife try to manipulate her into doing their bidding.
At school, Kim has several fires to put out. There’s the Dean’s insistence that three lecturers be axed after student evaluations cast them in a negative light. There’s claims of ageism and sexism when Joan (Holland Taylor) has her office moved to a basement with no wifi. Most pressing of all is Bill’s (Jay Duplass) accidental viral moment that sees a stupid Nazi salute he performed in the classroom shared online, sparking protests and outrage from the student body.
It’s here that The Chair really shines. Instead of writing Bill off immediately or coming to his defence too strongly, the show takes a more nuanced look at ‘cancel culture’. We’re shown the moments in Bill’s life that have contributed to his apathetic attitude, but rather than try and provoke sympathy it feels like they’re just trying to paint the full picture for us.
It doesn’t help the situation that Bill and Ji-yoon were involved romantically either. Oh is flawless in her frustrations at her friend and former lover, her berating full of depth and searing anger that he won’t pull himself off his course of self-sabotage. Her adopted daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla), meanwhile, is growing attached to Bill at the same time as she starts to reject her mother’s Korean heritage.
While most of The Chair is strong and supreme, there are factors that let it down. For one, it often feels like Ji-yoon is serving as a conduit for everyone else’s problems rather than a person all of her own. As a look at the problems facing the academic world in 2021, though, it’s eye-opening, thoughtful and – at times – darkly funny, letting Oh lean into her comedic chops with great results.
‘The Chair’ is streaming now on Netflix