University life in America today is worthy of a stupendous black comedy series but The Chair ain’t it. To do justice to such a theme would require a writer as scabrous as Michel Houellebecq and a director as fearless – and surreal – as Luis Buñuel. Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, the creators of this series, have identified a subject crying out for dramatic treatment but are disappointingly timid in their approach.
Normally a film or TV series that involves “issues” tends to sacrifice character development, showing us types rather than fully rounded individuals. With The Chair it’s the other way around. Too much emphasis on the private lives of the lead characters distracts from the race and gender battles that make today’s universities a perfect field for satire.
These culture wars are recognised in The Chair but the filmmakers prefer to focus on the personality of Sandra Oh’s Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim. As the first-ever “woman of colour” to head the English department at Pembroke College, a respectable, middle-ranking institution, Ji-Yoon looks as if she is about to burst into tears when dealing with the endemic problems of her job. The list includes declining course enrollments; budgetary pressures; generational tensions between staff members; battles to secure tenure; the influencing power of wealthy donors; student unrest; and the way the top brass value public image over substance.
This is a pretty full agenda, too full to be adequately dealt with in six brief episodes. Much of our time is spent examining Ji-Yoon’s life as a 47-year-old single mother with an adopted little girl of Mexican extraction. At work she has to balance the burden of three unpopular, elderly teachers (Bob Balaban, Holland Taylor, Ron Crawford), alongside the star appeal of a young black lecturer, Yaz (Nana Mensah).
The Dean (David Larson) is putting pressure on her to force the oldies to retire, but he hesitates to give Yaz the tenure she deserves. The biggest headache of all is Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), a popular lecturer who has struggled following the death of his wife. Bill is shambolic, disorganised, arrogant and seemingly oblivious to the trouble he is causing the department and Ji-Yoon. Unfortunately for her and for viewers, he is also the love interest in this story.
Here I feel obliged to state a personal preference: Jay Duplass ranks high on the list of American actors that leave me stone cold. That list would include his brother, Mark Duplass, Jason Sudeikis, Ben Stiller, Jason Bateman… actually, it’s a very long list.
No matter how many attempts are made to show a more sympathetic side of Bill, including his good relationship with Ji-Yoon’s daughter, Ju-Ju, he remains a prize jerk who lives in his own reality. His personality is unattractive and his role in the story poorly constructed. We keep hearing about how much the students love Bill, but they are remarkably quick to turn on him for the most shallow of reasons.
It may be that students in American universities today have simplistic, pious ideas about race and gender, but the examples we meet in this series are hardly better than cartoons. We’re expected to see them as bright, affable young people who unaccountably act like narrow-minded opportunists.
The most successful comic character is Holland Taylor’s Joan, who has spent over 30 years lecturing on Chaucer, and seems to have never gotten over the ribald bits. She’s the most overtly non-PC person in a faculty that spends much of its time pussy-footing around anything that might offend.
Like the English department at Pembroke, the makers of The Chair would like to have it both ways: to take a stand against the rising tide of hypersensitivity engulfing higher education while recognising the need to be more receptive to race and gender issues. They uphold the value of studying great works of the past, but stress the need for new approaches. It’s an impossible equation.
When dry-as-dust Professor Rentz, played by Bob Balaban, is lecturing on Moby Dick, a student yells out that Melville was a wife-beater. For Rentz this is an irrelevance, but cool, progressive Yaz promises to deal with the wife-beater question in her class. When we tune in to that session we find the students singing comic songs, making lewd jokes, and asking why there were no women on board the Pequod. The implication is that Yaz is making the book accessible to a group of young people who might otherwise be bored by anything published in the mid-19th century. Her students are not passive receptacles of knowledge, they are participating in a creative exploration of the story.
This ‘fun’ approach to Moby Dick suggests students need to be entertained while being educated, and can only be expected to approach a classic text through the lens of their own preoccupations. The Chair implicitly endorses this view by making Yaz a shining example of academic achievement, capable of teaching the classics in a user-friendly way. But courses that reward students primarily for attitude and identity soon devolve into environments in which any text with antiquated notions of race or gender, from The Iliad to Huckleberry Finn, gets banned. Long-standing courses give way to trendy new ones intended to boost student numbers, while standards are lowered to accommodate those who see exams, essays or basic literacy as inherently discriminatory.
Beside these real-life comedy-dramas the tribulations of Ji-Yoon and Bill, and everyone else at Pemboke College seem trivial. For a group of people devoted to great works of literature one might have hoped for a superior brand of soap opera.
Created by Amanda Peet & Annie Julia Wyman
Starring Sandra Oh, Jay Duplass, Bob Balaban, Nana Menesh, Holland Taylor, David Morse, Ella Rubin, Everly Carganilla, Mallory Low, Ron Crawford
USA, rated MA 15+, 6 episodes of approx. 30 mins
Streaming on Netflix
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 September, 2021