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Sandra Oh's The Chair Is a Waste of Stellar Talent

Life in academia isn't as sharply funny as it could be in the new Netflix series.
  • Sandra Oh, Nana Mensah and Holland Taylor in The Chair. (Photo: Eliza Morse/Netflix)
    Sandra Oh, Nana Mensah and Holland Taylor in The Chair. (Photo: Eliza Morse/Netflix)

    It feels like the consumers of popular culture could not make it more clear: we want more Sandra Oh. The Grey's Anatomy alum and current star of Killing Eve is beloved by audiences, critics and peers alike, racking up a career total of twelve (!) Emmy nominations. There's absolutely no reason she shouldn't have her pick of projects right now, and any show lucky enough to have her ought to be tripping all over itself to do right by her. Which is what makes Netflix's The Chair one of the bigger TV disappointments of 2021, a show that casts Sandra Oh front-and-center as the titular chair of the English department at the fancy-yet-fictional Pembroke University, only to deliver a story that feels more interested in dramatizing campus cancel culture and showcasing her male co-star.

    Oh stars as Ji-Yoon Kim, the first ever female chair of the English department at Pembroke, a job that she ends up describing as "a ticking time bomb" that the people in charge decided to put in her hands so that a woman would be holding it when it explodes. Among other things, she's inherited a department where enrollments are way down and the budget keeps getting hacked. Her boss, Dean Larson (David Morse) presents her with the solution to force the three oldest professors into early retirement. No one wants to enroll in their classes anymore, their student evaluations are abysmal (not that they read them anyway), and there are younger and more dynamic professors waiting to ascend (Nana Mensah, who was so great on the most recent season of Bonding plays one such budding superstar). But Ji-Yoon doesn't want to start out her tenure as chair by cutting faculty, and she has good relationships with those on the chopping block, particularly Joan (Holland Taylor), who's been quietly aggressed by the college, who've moved her office to the basement level of the gymnasium.

    The resulting bureaucratic mishegoss could be the stuff of fun, wry, even absurdist comedy, but The Chair throws itself off its own axis with its secondary lead character, Bill Dobson, a famed novelist turned English professor at Pembroke who is Ji-Yoon's best friend (and perhaps more), and whose life is falling apart since the recent death of his wife and his daughter leaving for college. Bill is played by Jay Duplass, which pretty much tells us all we need to know about what kind of character he is. Duplass has performed incredibly well on other shows, particularly on Transparent, where he perfected a kind of arrested, middle-aged, smirking disaster of single-white-man-hood, and that's exactly what he brings to this character, and by the mid-point of the six-episode season, Bill finds himself embroiled in a campus cancel-culture storyline that is handled about as charmlessly as possible.

    It's at this point that a promising Sandra Oh dramedy becomes the Jay Duplass fuckboy show, only it's not nearly as fun as the one on HBO Max hosted by Nikki Glaser. The Chair comes from writer/producer Amanda Peet and is executive produced by her Game of Thrones-running husband David Benioff. And it's not without its moments. Holland Taylor gets more than a few moments to shine as a woman who's been operating in her own corner of academia for so long she's become (pleasantly) eccentric but wholly divorced from the energies of her students. Bob Balaban also has great fun as one of the English department dinosaurs. And Ji-Yoon's relationships with her widowed father and her daughter — whose grade-school-aged rebellions include acting out about being adopted from Mexico — lead to some well-earned moments. But this is a comedy without much in the way of laughs, and a slice-of-life-in-academia story that takes too many easy shortcuts.

    For a show whose opening moments, where Ji-Yoon enters her new office on her first day as chair to find a plaque from Bill that reads "Fucker in Charge of You Fucking Fucks," showed so much promise for a sharp, take-no-prisoners Sandra Oh comedy, we instead get a lead character mired in a go-nowhere non-relationship with a guy like Bill whose appeal to her is never well articulated. The Chair is ultimately a disappointment and a waste of some rare talent.

    The Chair premieres on Netflix Friday, August 20th.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Chair, Netflix, Amanda Peet, Holland Taylor, Jay Duplass, Sandra Oh