Why Netflix’s satire The Chair misses the mark.
In summary, let’s just not make Nazi jokes.
Warning: contains spoilers!
Netflix has pumped out a limited series that is so delightfully up my alley I’m actually wondering if they read my mind! I’ve been yearning for some more (read: better) shows that focus on campus culture, and particularly, academia. Netflix did me one better and gave me both of those themes, plus it’s focused on an English department! And since no one has responded positively to my frantic questions of ‘but have you seen The Chair yet?’, I’ve decided to monopolize a page of A&C to make sure I get to talk to someone about this.
The Chair focuses on fictional Pembrooke College’s newly appointed chair of the English Department, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh.) Dr. Kim is not only the first woman of colour to ascend to this position, but she is also the first woman, period. She sets out to make radical change in her department, which consists of Dr. Elliot Rentz, an older White man and Melville scholar who is put in a tumultuous co-teaching arrangement with Dr. Yaz McKay, a young, increasingly popular Black woman who is also a Melville scholar; Dr. Joan Hambling, an under-appreciated female Chaucer scholar, whose office has been doomed to the basement of the Rec facility; faculty “heartthrob” novelist Dr. Bill Dobson; and another older professor, whose name I don’t even remember, because his sole character trait was falling asleep everywhere and farting.
The Chair, however, is not the academia-focused show I was expecting. It was certainly not glamourizing the environment or pandering to the rise of the “dark academia aesthetic.” Rather, it set out to be an honest critique of the system of academia and the people in it. Now, this is a welcome angle in my opinion, because though I love academia and plan to spend my whole life in it, I can’t do so without acknowledging there are very glaring, inherent flaws in the system.
As a spoiler alert, though – this is not a rave review. (‘Do I contradict myself? Yes, I do. I contradict myself.’) Despite bringing all the qualities I love in a TV show – mother-daughter dynamics, unconventional family dynamics, books, and campus culture – The Chair fell short of a lot of my initial hopes for it. This happened for a multitude of reasons: mostly because it played into a will-they-won’t-they romance of two heavily stereotyped characters and made the other more interesting plotlines take a backseat to their dalliance.
But to start out, here’s what I loved. First of all: Ji-Yoon’s daughter Ju Ju – which is quite ironic, because in the show about academia, the person who doesn’t like children loves the only child most? I love her very dark and disturbing tendencies that frighten everyone around her, I love her snarky attitude, and I also love the representation she offered. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a show where a child of Mexican heritage is adopted by a Korean single mother. As frustrating as it was at times, I loved her dynamic with her mother because it was so unconventional.
I also loved Joan, played by Holland Taylor, whose entire plot arc mostly focused on her negative teaching evaluations – particularly her discovery of a disturbingly sexual review on Rate My Prof, a website for anonymous (and often harsh) student reviews of university faculty. She gets onto the site after being told she needs to review her teacher evaluations and see how to better appeal to her students (or risk being fired, little does she know.) Taylor is a joy in any program she appears in, and this was no exception.
Then there’s Sandra Oh – who doesn’t love her? Her presence on screen always feels like a warm hug, no matter who she’s playing. However, I did find her character to be – most of the time – insufferable, because “blinded by loyalty to a White man” is my absolute least favourite personality trait. But of course, the show would have ended after only a few episodes if she would have done her job and disciplined Bill in the first place.
And Bill was the absolute worst. As an actual human person, I simply cannot understand how one can be accused of being a Nazi and have any response other than “I am so, so sorry. I do not agree with anything the Nazis believed and I’m so sorry I hurt any students with my action.” Bill, of course, takes the Ultimate White Man Response™ and blames anyone but himself, but particularly, cancel culture. I get that Bill is meant to be insufferable, and that his insufferable-ness is part of the critique at hand, but it’s how his storyline concludes that’s the frustrating part.
That conclusion is that Bill is ultimately, after taking down everyone around him, fired for his actions – but never sorry, except sorry for the demise of his career. He spends the whole show trying to schmooze and prove to everyone he’s not a racist, instead of just simply apologizing. Regardless of if you think “cancel culture” goes too far sometimes, I just don’t understand why a professor wouldn’t want his students to feel comfortable and safe in their learning environment. But then again, I’m also not a White man, and I’m not comfortable and safe everywhere I go.
And let’s be honest, he wasn’t doing a bang-up job of that before the incident either! One of his opening scenes is one where he rolls up to class drunk and accidentally opens a video file of his topless, pregnant, recently deceased wife in front of his whole class. I could fill my whole section this week talking about how horrible Bill is, but instead I’ll move on to what they could have done better.
I think that’s The Chair’s greatest flaw, however, is too many plots and not enough time. I think, personally, the storyline between Dr. Rentz and Dr. McKay, the warring Melville scholars, held the most promise and potential for exploring a real problem in academia: challenging dominant perspectives and adjusting to how students learn best in a radically changing world.
The storyline of Ji-Yoon and Bill, and Bill’s subsequent disgusting behaviour, overshadows all the good that’s being done. Ji-Yoon falls hard into the “career woman who is so busy she has no time for family” stereotype and Bill falls hard into the “sexy novelist who thinks his charms will get him out of everything” stereotype and nothing is really done to break these stereotypes. Oh, sorry, Bill actually doesn’t sleep with his students, so that breaks the stereotype! Not.
Ultimately, Ji-Yoon loses her job as chair and returns to being a professor where she is implied to be much happier and have more time for her troubled child Ju Ju, and Bill realizes his students are important after all, and declines settlement money to get back into the students’ good graces – while doing zero work to prove that he actually isn’t a racist! Take a class on anti-Semitism or do something else that’s performative at the bare minimum, Bill.
Dr. McKay leaves for a job at Yale and the department loses its only person of colour other than Ji-Yoon. If Ji-Yoon can’t end as Department Chair, however, I will say I’m happy that Joan, who eventually speaks out about being offered $10,000 less than her colleague for her first teaching position, ends up with the job. It’s still a step towards addressing some systemic wrongs, just like the show itself. However, The Chair really just feels to me like two steps forward, one step back.