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The Chair is a fun workplace dramedy, but it's not a satire of people in power

  • The Netflix workplace dramedy starring Sandra Oh has a "rich and brief style is one that more streaming shows could benefit from emulating," says Alessa Dominguez. "But its attempt to engage with contemporary cultural mores, already bringing the show acclaim as a biting new satire, is paradoxically the least interesting throughline. Though seemingly nuanced about so-called cancel culture, the show is less a skewering of power than an exercise in sympathy for those already at the top." Dominguez adds: "It’s probably too much to ask a Netflix series to complicate pop-cultural understandings of power in the era of corporate diversity politics. But the show’s major plot engine only makes sense if you think of it almost like a capitulation to cancel culture critics who think white men are being forced to apologize for things they didn’t do. (It also suggests the show didn’t want to really go there in terms of depicting who actually gets subjected to weaponized accusations of antisemitism: Palestinian scholars critiquing US imperialism.) It’s frustrating, too, that the show implicitly asks viewers to sympathize with the problems of the academic 1% at a moment when the biggest crisis in academia is mass adjunctification and the most vulnerable people in academia are graduate students...The Chair is a fun, bingeable workplace dramedy. But that it’s being hailed as satire says more about the overlapping class politics of the media and tenured faculty as culture industry workers than about its 'biting' politics."


    • The Chair’s shot at satire is undermined by its choice to focus almost exclusively on the lives of tenured faculty: "These are characters who all maintain their belief in the system, and because of that belief think that return and recovery is a matter of choice, of trying harder, believing more," says John Warner. "The show chooses not to share the direct experiences of those for whom the system cannot work and who would make much better vehicles for exploring satire. There was a juicy target for genuine satire -- the impossibility of marrying the educational mission with the realities of institutional operations -- but by focusing solely on the lives of the professors, the show makes it impossible to explore that vein. Imagine Catch-22 told entirely from the point of view of the senior officers not going into harm’s way, and you have The Chair....As a satire the show fails. To work it would’ve had to consider the perspectives of those who are actually tasked with the mission everyone affirms as meaningful at the end, but who have found it impossible to do. It would need to grapple with the demoralization that has driven so many people out of the academy despite the deep love for the mission that the professors of The Chair claim to revere, but barely do. I can see why the show didn’t want to go there. Nobody wants to binge a show about people being demoralized."
    • The Chair is supposed to revolve around Sandra Oh's Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, but it keeps getting sidetracked by Jay Duplass' "white male doofus" character: "Duplass is charming as ever in The Chair, but there's nothing more frustrating than seeking out a show for fresh storytelling that centers the experience of a marginalized person and instead being hit with a storyline focused on a bumbling, white male doofus," says Kylie Cheung. "There's many a pressing issue Dr. Kim faces as chair of an under-enrolled English department, but she's instead forced to clean up mess after mess created by a drunken, reckless and politically insensitive Dobson." She adds: "The Chair unfortunately isn't the first case of an interesting female character, character of color, or otherwise marginalized character being pushed to the side for a white man's redemption arc, or some long-winded, flashback storytelling into why an awful white guy is awful (spoiler alert: it's never actually his fault). The unsolicited white male rehabilitation storyline is a fixture in nearly every genre of story, and frustrating as it may be, it's not always a pain to watch...This first season of The Chair is frustrating to watch because of its undeniable potential, squandered on its overkill efforts to make yet another disgruntled white man likable, or at least tolerable and sympathetic. Some may argue that this is the point, that the show reflects the depressing and frustrating reality we face: white and privileged people are awful but inevitably end up winning – as we've seen in The White Lotus and Succession. But other than observing the state of the world, what then? What is the value that this series provides as thoughtful commentary or entertainment? On the bright side, the solution to fix The Chair is relatively simple, if Netflix sees fit to continue Dr. Kim's story after it effectively set her back to her pre-Chair status, a little bruised but not broken. That is, the show should simply focus less on the laborious task of trying to rehabilitate another boring, problematic white man, and dig deeper into the exponentially more interesting experience of characters like Dr. Kim."
    • Sandra Oh makes The Chair worth watching: "Much has been written about her slow path to stardom, as she navigated the limitations imposed on Asian performers in American film and television," says Hua Hsu. "She has made a career out of reacting to others and playing complementary roles. Without a lane of her own, she mastered the performance of empathy, working off the energies of those around her. Were this real life, these are precisely the qualities that would make her a good chair. Were this real life, these are precisely the qualities that would make her a good chair. In his upcoming book, How to Chair a Department, the scholar Kevin Dettmar outlines an uplifting case for how a chair can transform the culture of an institution, as long as she accepts that she is the 'designated grown-up.' This perfectly describes Kim, who is adept at the emotional labor of pacifying hot-shot egos, patiently making unloved professors feel useful again. The writers render her with nuance and a full range of feeling, as when she leaves campus and loses all semblance of professional authority, nagged by her father, challenged by a daughter too young to appreciate what she is going through."
    • The Chair explores the psychology of marginalized people who choose to press forward in an academic culture that was built on their exploitation: "There is clearly a lot going on but Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman’s half-hour series handles the plot with arresting efficiency," says Tirhakah Love. "There is no fluff, no wasted air time; it demands your eyes up from your phone to catch all the jokes and subtle meanings. There are lessons on the ways racism, sexism, ageism, and consumerism have all seeped into scholarship, but it never feels like a lecture. Nor does it fall into the trap of being anti-intellectual or, as some folks would term it, 'anti-woke.' The show is careful not to disparage young people who, yes, can be reactionary but often because they can smell bullshit from a mile away. The students stage a march and protest against Bill, and that does turn into a back-and-forth that seems to lose the plot a little. But those students also form the moral center of the entire show. They realize that the only real power they have is as a collective and they exercise that power by signing petitions to save ethnic studies and ensuring the work of Prof. McKay is respected and rewarded by the English department."
    • David Duchovny was perfect for The Chair: "This celebrity cameo, while it made me like David Duchovny, also made me respect The Chair," says Rebecca Onion. "It was smart to bring a charismatic person, who once aspired to do what these professors did, into a show about the declining value of that profession. The deans and trustees and the whole world ask the professors in The Chair why anyone should care about what they do, as the motley crew of colleagues struggles to get students to sign up for their courses. One answer the higher-ups come up with: Let’s associate ourselves with this famous person who did it—at least he’s sold books, tons of them."
    • Holland Taylor admits it was a challenge preparing to play an expert in poet Geoffrey Chaucer: "I did nothing with medieval studies when I was in school," she says. "Just trying to read passages from Chaucer was challenging. Of course, Joan says, 'you just sort of feel your way into it and soon enough it feels natural to you.' Well, not to me! I have a friend Jack O’Brien, a wonderful Broadway director, who still can recite those first lines from the introduction."
    • How Annie Julia Wyman went from Harvard Ph.D. in English to co-creator of The Chair: After earning her doctorate, Wyman moved to Hollywood to pursue an entertainment career since she already had a manager and a pilot script in development tilted Hot Blonde. Amid her time in Los Angeles, she began teaching at Claremont McKenna. That's when she got a Facebook message from the assistant to Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff. Amanda Peet, his wife, was researching a new project that would become The Chair and was seeking her help.
    • Sandra Oh says Daniel Dae Kim's cameo was a fluke: "When it was like, 'Oh, we need someone to play Dr. Peter Seung, we need someone,' they said, 'Sandra, do you have a picture of you and a handsome Korean guy?,'" says Oh, laughing. "'Well, I have one with Daniel!' It was like we needed a prop. Isn't that hilarious?"

    TOPICS: The Chair, Netflix, Amanda Peet, Annie Julia Wyman, Daniel Dae Kim, David Duchovny, Holland Taylor, Jay Duplass, Sandra Oh