The Netflix academic farce is triggering professors everywhere
Netflix’s new academic farce The Chair, starring Sandra Oh, manages to wring a few guffaws out of the absurdity that is university politics. But as the six-episode season winds along, it becomes clear that there’s more at stake than just the egos of professors and deans, though those are not in short supply. Even professors are people, and some of them have families to support. Plus they have to teach, and get plenty of students in their classes to justify their jobs, and somehow manage not to say or do the wrong thing. As it turns out, making the Nazi salute, even as a joke, isn’t the best of moves, no matter how popular a teacher you might be. But more on that in a bit.
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Seeing as the show’s creators, Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, both hold degrees from Ivy League schools, with Wyman finishing her doctorate in English at Harvard in 2017, you can be confident that they know a bit about what they’re lampooning. Aged professors teaching the same syllabus for forty years—check. Smart but ignorant students amped to demonstrate their commitment to social justice—check. Administrators more concerned about the bottom line than the spirit of free inquiry—check. Through this sea of personalities, Oh’s Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, new chair of English at Pembroke University, must navigate as best she can, all while somehow keeping rein on her troubled adopted daughter, Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), not to mention the perpetually hungover star of her department, the widower Dr. Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass).
The various clashes and collisions between the many characters make for the occasional laugh, though never for outright hilarity. The show is at its funniest in its moments of least verisimilitude, as when one of the older professors, Dr. Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), enlists an IT guy to help her track down and confront in the library a student who’s been leaving her poor reviews. So while the show gets the milieu right, that’s not where its humor lands.
On social media, there does seem to be a general reaction among academic types that the show hits a little too close to home: as Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen tweeted, it “is an enjoyable comedy. It is also a horror show, depicting my nightmare of life in an English dept.” I am guessing that Dr. Nguyen never had to deal with a band of students calling for the head of a professor who, in an offhand comparison of Absurdism and Fascism, tosses off a quick “heil Hitler,” complete with Nazi salute. It’s possible, but I expect he’s talking mostly about departmental politics.
The offender, of course, is Dr. Bill Dobson, Dr. Kim’s not-quite love interest. Drunk more often than not, he’s been widowed a year, and has just escorted his only daughter to the airport for her first year at Columbia. Day after day he gets up and scrabbles his way to class in a Joy Division t-shirt. His car has been seized, so he takes a ride from a fetching undergraduate, and gets a dressing-down from Dr. Kim. All in all, he’s a mess. And then comes his primordial sin, dressed up with SS uniform and spread across social media, and he goes from saint to pariah. But even after that, he has a chance for redemption, thanks to Ju-Hee.
Which raises the question: is this story, or hers? Dr. Kim gets far more screen time than Dr. Dobson, but they’re entwined in ways you wouldn’t expect. Put it off to the pressures of her job, perhaps, that Dr. Kim lets this suspended drunk babysit her kid. She’s busy trying to push through the department’s first tenure appointment of a black woman, whose class she’s jammed together with that of a creaky old WASP. Was Melville’s whale a symbol of an uncaring God or of a system of endless oppression? Who cares, really, when your dean is all but panting down your neck to get you to force the oldest, highest-earners in the department to retire? Meanwhile your daughter is offering balls of Play-Doh “poison” to her therapist.
Yet for all of this, Dobson is justified in the end. Of course, it’s Kim who accomplishes it for him, standing up to rubber-stamp administrators and her intellectually stagnant dean and a whole passel of outraged students who’ll find something else to be mad about next week. The next question, then, is, if it’s the story of them both, dramatically and morally speaking, why is it that Sandra Oh gets top billing? What’s more important about her story here than his?
Throughout the six episodes of the series, Kim and her father try again and again, with limited success, on the one hand to reassure Ju-Hee that they love her, while on the other trying to rein in her anti-social tendencies. Yet Kim has so little time to tend to her daughter that their fridge is full of nothing but Lunchables, so that when Dobson proposes to make Ju-Hee some eggs she says she’s never eaten them. Kim’s father isn’t quite sure about this non-Korean child, though he’ll give it his best go, even dressing up in Mariachi gear for a Day of the Dead party at her school.
When, in the last episode, Ju-Hee responds in Korean to her grandfather’s assertion that her mother’s tears, brought on by so many conflicting demands, “will scare her,” it’s not as though he and Kim’s dean colluded to reach that conclusion. Ju-Hee has come to acknowledge family and its value on her own, whatever anyone else might think. But the academic structure that encloses her mother, and to which her grandfather genuflects, have made family almost an afterthought. To quote a former professor of mine, Angela Zito (now at New York University), as she started off a long Facebook thread about this show: “academic life . . . strives usually to exclude the familial and the domestic.” And it’s this dynamic that makes it Kim’s show, not Dobson’s.
Ultimately, The Chair is about human weakness, and how we try to change our failures into successes. In the end, no one wins, on anyone’s terms, even if materially speaking some do better than others. Kim keeps a job and a modicum of intellectual integrity; Dobson regains a sense of heart he’d thought he’d lost. The Chair doesn’t absolve anyone. But what’s unique about this show, and what makes it worthwhile, is that it doesn’t show one single character to be unworthy of love.