Creator: Amanda Peet, Annie Julia Wyman
Cast: Sandra Oh, Jay Duplass, Holland Taylor, Nana Mensah, Bob Balaban, Everly Carganilla, David Morse
Duration: 6 episodes, approx. 30 minutes
Release date: August 20, 2021
‘The Chair’ is one of the most original Netflix series released in recent years, and we mean it. The focal character in ‘The Chair’ is Dr Ji-Yoon Kim, played by the brilliant Sandra Oh from BBC’s ‘Killing Eve’. Kim is a professor of English literature at the fictional Pembroke University who is elected as Chairperson of the English Department.
Kim is the first woman of colour to chair the department and she’s only forty-six! This is great news, right? Well, not quite. The department is shown in shambles, fast losing students, opting for more ‘practical’ majors. Kim must get her peers in line and resist subordination from other senior teachers of the university and negotiate with the Dean (David Morse), while juggling motherhood.
There are other subplots to keep this acerbic show fresh as one proceeds. Dr Bill Dobson, essayed by Jay Duplass, is a grieving widower who gets increasingly reckless at his job due to depression. One day, he gives a lecture on Death and Modernism in a way that is so captivating to watch that it gets sad when it’s time to move to the next scene; we also get to see the entranced students’ reactions here. He gets embroiled in a controversy that pushes one to scrutinize ‘cancel culture’ with the emotional delicacy of polarized situations.
Holland Taylor plays an absolutely hilarious and delightful crude professor Dr Joan Hambling, who delivers a gloriously impassioned rant on the cultural significance of Geoffrey Chaucer and ‘The Canterbury Tales’ after a student leaves a negative review on her teaching.
An even subdued plot thread runs parallel to the above stories with Dr Elliot Rentz, who is portrayed by the superb Bob Balaban (‘Gosford Park’, ‘Ghost World’). Rentz is a veteran in the Department who slowly realizes that he is not at his prime anymore, being out of touch with young students due to his stubbornness. One might find it interesting to watch him navigate his working relationship with the young professor Dr Yaz MacKay (Nana Mensah), who makes being ‘relatable and liked by students’ seem like a breeze. When the two professors have their classes merged into one, we see an exciting power struggle being negotiated between the two.
The least interesting subplot is, incidentally, that of the budding romance between peers Kim and Bill Dobson, who realize that they might not be a bad pair at all. The terrain here looks familiar.
‘The Chair’s power lies in the painfully detailed nuances and interactions between the sophisticated teachers at the institution. So often, shows are wary of diving into academic life due to fear of alienating viewers. They end up using the setting simply as a springboard to tackle more conventional topics like romance. Thanks to ‘The Chair’s writers, this is not a problem. We get an almost hands-on experience at the Ivy League school and partake in the esoteric joys, toils and turmoils of these highbrow grown-ups.
This miniseries is created by actor Amanda Peet and scholar Annie Julia Wyman, who was the perfect writer to bring onboard as Wyman is based at Harvard University and gets the rhythmic machinations behind an educational institution. It is rare to see a show, much less from Netflix, about an English Department in a university and all the drama that entails. Here’s hoping that Season 2 and 3 get greenlit soon!
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