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The Chair review: Satire about entitlement skewers both sides

This even-handed series stars Sandra Oh as the first woman to hold the position of Chair in the fictitious Pembroke School

Sandra Oh and (right) Mark Philip Stevenson in ‘The Chair’. Image via AP
Sandra Oh and (right) Mark Philip Stevenson in ‘The Chair’. Image via AP

I can’t get over the hat. 

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In The Chair, an effervescent Netflix comedy set in the world of academia, Dr Ji-Yoon Kim, head of the English department, tells a professor how things have changed since his heyday. The professor can’t believe this. He is piqued by the suggestion that he, a Great Man, played by the genuinely great Bob Balaban — distinguished alumnus of the Christopher Guest university and the Wes Anderson playschool — could ever be past it. “Who says I’m not in my heyday now?” he asks, eyes suddenly agleam, and seizes a hat from his desk to fling it triumphantly toward a rack. He misses it completely. Dr Kim, baffled by this display of impotent bravado, is too exhausted to react.

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The first woman to hold the vaunted position of Chair in the fictitious Pembroke School, Dr Kim (played by the superb Sandra Oh) feels the seat may not be what she’d longed for from afar. In the most damning of metaphors, even her office chair — the chair meant for the chair — is broken. Ricocheting from crisis to crisis while sidestepping egos aged and young, she says, “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.” 

Her ticking-tocking (and Prufrock-ing) colleagues aren’t altogether in the wrong. A Chaucer authority called Joan, played imperiously by Holland Taylor, claims she chose teaching because it was a job she couldn’t age out of. Like comedian (and king of the one-liners Henny Youngman once said, “Old teachers never die. They just grade away.” The longheld idea of academia has been a fusty one where academics are put out to tenure, not pasture. These teachers are merely seeking the twilight promised by TS Eliot, with “time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions.”

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Expectations, however, have evolved. Venerable, bookish professors, like the one played by Balaban, find themselves teaching to emptying classrooms in contrast with younger colleagues who engage with students more passionately — asking them to tweet their favourite lines from Moby Dick. Balaban’s solemn Melville scholar considers this pandering. Perhaps it is. Yet educators have to create ways to scythe through the clutter of omnipresent distractions to attract students instead of forcing assignments on them. 

The Chair, created by actress Amanda Peet with Harvard PhD Annie Julia Wyman, explores how the vacant classroom, like the tree falling in the woods unheard, is a bonafide fear. Now students rate their professors online, anonymity enabling their profane comments. Are teachers allowed to say whatever they like to illustrate their points? Are students allowed to film and meme teachers, robbing actions of context? At a time when we are challenging those entrenched in positions of privilege, is tenure too safe (and too permanent) a blanket? Is a university campus the least appropriate — or the most appropriate — arena for cancel-culture? 

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It may only be six half-hour episdes, but The Chair has a packed syllabus.

Peet and Wyman breeze through the coursework. Peet is a talented actress with a humongous grin, and I’ve loved her work right from Igby Goes Down to Brockmire and even Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, but was surprised by the cleverness of The Chair. It balances the romance of a professor passionate about Chaucer, wishing students would realise just how racy and provocative he was, and the reality of that teacher’s inability to connect with students. The show’s extremes are embodied by Dr Kim’s extraordinarily straight-talking daughter Ju Ju, and Dr Kim’s best friend (and former chair of the department), a gifted klutz called Bill Dobson.

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Jay Duplass — the actor-director who created one of Peet’s most memorable TV roles with Togetherness (streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar) — plays Dobson as emblematic of privileged white men overstaying their welcomes. A rockstar academic with overpowering appeal, his actions are misguided by delusions of what he thinks he can (still) get away with. For a show about literature, he and Oh have tremendous chemistry, though she is often compelled to clean up his messes.

From Grey’s Anatomy to Killing Eve, Oh has always made weariness look like an art-form. The Chair allows audiences to empathise more deeply with the consternation flashing tactlessly across her face. As chair, mother, friend, professor, activist and spoilsport denier of celebrity lecturers, Dr Kim  has a lot on her plate. Her comic timing is remarkable, and it is delicious how casually she can italicise a word mid-sentence to underline precisely how flummoxed she is. She’s almost iambic. 

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As power dynamics shift, and threats and challengers emerge for Dr Kim’s position, it becomes evident this “minor Ivy League” school holds little stability. The chair is, in fact, a hot seat. (It makes me want to reread Julie Schumacher’s marvellous Dear Committee Members, a novel made entirely out of pompous recommendation letters that end up saying more about the sender than the subject.)

This is a satire primarily about entitlement — on the part of the old and the young — and the creators are admirably even-handed. Both sides are skewered, and with good reason. A terrific sequence involves a professor attempting to tender an apology to the student body, only for the apology itself to be proofread and corrected as he utters it, each term annotated on the fly by malcontent millennials. It is impossibly uphill, and immediately believable. Sometimes it feels like the only lesson we are teaching is ‘how to teach a lesson.’

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Streaming Tip Of The Week:

To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Apple TV+ has premiered 9/11: Inside The President’s War Room. Narrated by Jeff Daniels, the insightful documentary feels urgent, even making then President George W Bush appear effective.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

 

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