Drama in academia
The Chair examines challenges in higher education but falls short in critiquing them
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In Netflix’s new comedy series The Chair, Sandra Oh plays Ji-Yoon Kim, a professor at the fictional Ivy League Pembroke University who becomes the first woman to chair the English department. The realities of higher education test Ji-Yoon right away.
The professor’s dean asks her to help him force the three oldest faculty members into an early retirement, but at the same time, Ji-Yoon tries to ensure that Yaz, her young black colleague, gets tenure. She gets distracted from her real work when Bill, a colleague who happens to be her love interest, goes viral after students post a clip of him giving a Nazi salute. Bill isn’t a fascist, so he doesn’t think he should apologize for being taken out of context. Ji-Yoon spends the six-episode series facing uprising from faculty and students alike.
Some genuine problems in American higher education show up in the series: Many schools struggle against declining enrollments. Some professors feel pressured to pander to their students’ expectation to be entertained. Cancel culture rears its head and eats its own.
But the way the series tackles financial issues rarely rings true, as Ivy League schools have endowments in the billions. Such institutions don’t have the same worries as your local community college. Bill’s difficulty seems more plausible, but the series flinches, too afraid to grapple with cancel culture. Maybe that timid spirit makes The Chair like much of higher education—acknowledging a problem while unwilling to critique it.
Oh has some nice moments, but overall the series, rated TV-MA for exceedingly strong language and scenes of nonsexual nudity, doesn’t contain enough comedy, emotion, or insight to make it worth watching.
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