Warning: Some spoilers ahead
While most shows set on a college campus usually focus on the students, Netflix’s The Chair flips the script by allowing viewers to see what happens behind the scenes with the professors.
The series delivers humor right from the start. Set against a prestigious university backdrop, the series immediately introduces its tone with the appearance of protagonist Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh,) the newly elected chair of Pembroke’s English department. The Chair is quick to disrupt our expectations as her introduction goes south quickly, the instrumental song backing the scene cut hilariously with the image of Oh falling out of her desk chair. The amusing irony sets up a good tone for the rest of the six-episode series.
Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim is a 46-year-old single mother and, as her introduction indicates, she doesn’t have her life together. She is trying her best to act professional, but between her young daughter struggling with her mental health, and wanting to please the older white professors who gave her the chair position, she struggles. Luckily (or maybe not-so-lucky in her case,) her relationship with another professor who needs to get his act together—Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass)—grows.
Professor Bill Dobson is quite a character. He used to be a well-respected English professor, but ever since his wife died a year ago, Dobson’s turned to drugs, and hardly shows up to class. Dobson even accidentally shows his whole class a video of his nude pregnant wife when getting the projector set up. His reputation only goes downhill from there. During one class Dobson does the Nazi salute, and students start rallying against him, calling him a “Nazi” (he’s not actually a Nazi.) Eventually, Dobson talks to his students, saying he didn’t mean to hurt their “feelings,” but he never gives a true apology.
Because of Ji-Yoon’s growing relationship with the Nazi-accused Dobson, her position as chair gets jeopardized. As the series progresses, the episodes feel more like a drama, and everything turns more serious with touches of humor every now and then.
Meanwhile, aside from the whole Ji-Yoon Kim and Dobson’s relationship issues, The Chair still holds a main overarching conflict: the declining English department. With the same-old dull professors and the unprofessional Dobson, the number of students leaving the English department rises. In lectures, many students voice they want a more diverse staff. After all, there’s only one Black professor (not even tenured,) one Asian professor (Ji-Yoon,) and the rest are all old, white, and tenured. Students want to learn new material, not just the same information the school’s been teaching for the past 30 years. Ji-Yoon has a lot on her plate: she has to deal with Dobson, who’s been great and helping out with her home-life, watching over her daughter, and she has to appeal to the students and the tenured professors. Watching Ji-Yoon deal with all of these overlapping conflicts makes her feel like a real, well-developed individual. We also get to see how overwhelming the chair position can be, especially with the added home-life stressors.
While The Chair offers a lot of social commentary—the series addressing not only anti-Semitism but also white supremacy and gender inequality—the show fails to really help any of these issues, which is disappointing since advocating change in the workplace was a major plot point of the show.
Sure, Ji-Yoon is the first woman of color chair of the college she works at, but how is that enough representation for people of color and women? The college also only has one Black woman professor, but she may also be leaving the school soon with a job offer elsewhere. Without her, only two female professors are left standing— and only one is a woman of color. Season one of The Chair should have ended with a new hire to pump up the diversity. After all, that’s what the students want: to end race and gender inequality. Instead, the school has undergone none, if any, changes since episode one in regards to social issues.
Ji-Yoon should have made more of an impact as the first female chair rather than spending so much time with Dobson. She started her chair position wanting to leave her mark, but rather, she doesn’t accomplish a lot of what she sought out to do after the election. Instead, Ji-Yoon focuses on strengthening her friendship with Dobson. Deep down she knows befriending Dobson will look bad as she’s the chair and he’s already made a fool of himself, but she doesn’t listen to that gut feeling. However, from a show-viewing standpoint, adding Ji-Yoon and Dobson’s relationship was a good move because, while Ji-Yoon struggled at being a single parent, Dobson was a natural at taking care of her adopted daughter.
Ultimately, the comedy makes The Chair an enjoyable watch. One of the highlights of the show is when one professor (Holland Taylor) refuses to look at her student evaluations, even going so far as lighting all of them on fire, but soon goes down the rabbit hole which is RateMyProfessor. She even tracks down a student who gave her several offensive reviews by having someone help her hack into the website to find his location.
Although The Chair has many comical scenes and amusing dialogue from characters, at the end it would have been nice to see more from Ji-Yoon and have her really make a positive impression on the English department. Ji-Yoon’s influence on the college feels lacking and a bit disappointing. Still, The Chair delivers a positive message—that professors are human and, even though we may think they do, they might not have their lives completely together.
The Chair is available on Netflix.