About halfway through the first season of “The Chair,” I found myself profoundly grateful that it wasn’t the show it too easily could have been.
Created by Amanda Peet, the Netflix comedy takes place at the fictional Pembroke College, a fittingly idyllic liberal arts school where Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) has just become the English department’s first female chair. (The pilot, co-written by Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, establishes such a recognizable academic world that anyone who’s fretted over a core curriculum or lounged on a quad should have immediate, visceral flashbacks.) Ji-Yoon’s harried attempts to keep her ailing department together in the face of declining enrollment, entrenched sexism and racism, and her unraveling work flirt Bill (Jay Duplass) have her running frantic every day — especially as students begin to call out Pembroke’s attempts to maintain its dusty status quo. It’s not exactly the show most would expect from executive producers’ D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s massive Netflix deal, but it’s only more intriguing for it.
Throughout its six episodes, dropping August 20 on Netflix, “The Chair” moves at a sharp comedic clip (tip of the hat here to Daniel Gray Longino) even as it hinges on a topic that’s become a favorite for Fox News and concerned centrists alike: the omnipresent specter of “political correctness” supposedly running amok on college campuses, and the generational clash it tends to represent. In less deft hands, the inciting event of Bill playacting a Sieg Heil during a lecture could be a clunky, didactic nightmare that would inevitably make a caricature out of everyone involved. Credit where it’s due to “The Chair,” then, for almost entirely sidestepping that outcome with more nuanced characters and insight than most media tackling so-called “cancel culture” comes close to achieving. Where other TV shows would lay the blame solely at the feet of hysterical students or evil teachers, “The Chair” manages to demonstrate the layers at play for both factions without feeling like it’s equivocating too much to have any real bite.
Before Bill stumbles headfirst into self-inflicted controversy, for instance, the series is careful to lay the groundwork not only for how he got to that moment, but how Pembroke operates and the part that Ji-Yoon now plays in it. Ji-Yoon is determined to do right by everyone in the department, but especially hopes that she can make the kind of difference for Yaz (Nana Mensah) — a young Black professor who knows how to excite the incoming generation of students — that she wishes someone had made for her.
As a professor, Ji-Yoon gets to be her curious, thoughtful, intellectually probing self. As chair, however, she’s tasked with fixing the department’s historical failings and juggling the many personalities within it such as Bill, increasingly insecure Elliot (Bob Balaban), and elder stateswoman Joan (Holland Taylor), whose sedate lectures rarely reflect the true nature of her bombastic personality. It’s not a surprise at this point in their storied careers to say that Balaban and Taylor are very good at their jobs, but the fact remains that they consistently find something new to convey about their characters in most every line or look. Taylor is especially striking in a role that seems tailor-made for her. With Taylor commanding the role, something like Joan’s flabbergasted response to the dean (David Morse) exiling her office to a basement is just as hilarious and human as the moment she accidentally sets it ablaze in a fit of frustrated fury.
Perhaps the trickiest character to get right is Bill, the department’s unwitting and unreliable center of gravity. It’s true that he’s both grieving the loss of his wife and that he’s lost control of himself in and out of the classroom and doesn’t seem to care. Duplass quickly locks into this very specific portrayal of a smart white guy writer turned star teacher with the requisite rumpled corduroy suits to match his meticulous disaffection. It’s not the first time Duplass has assumed the role of a man who fancies himself more self-aware and progressive than he is (see “Transparent”), but “The Chair” deploys his particular charm as such with focused precision. Viewers will undoubtedly be split on how the season leaves Bill. But that’s because the show also keeps him grounded in an emotional reality that prevents him from becoming either an unfairly maligned scapegoat or an irredeemable jackass.
Then again, he might not be bearable at all without Oh’s Ji-Yoon (a fact Bill points out often, much to her chagrin). If “The Chair” does nothing else for the TV landscape, let its legacy be that it has given Oh the starring comedic showcase she’s long deserved. Oh’s always been funny — anyone who believes “Grey’s Anatomy” is a strict melodrama simply hasn’t seen it — and “The Chair” gives her ample room to show it. The show absolutely includes some moments of real pathos, as in the scenes featuring Ji-Yoon’s young daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla), now going through a phase of lashing out at being a Mexican girl adopted into a Korean American family. Yet even those scenes tend to feature Oh’s impeccable comedic timing as Ji-Yoon struggles to understand her daughter, whose teachers find her sadistic but who also shares her mother’s fierce smarts and observation skills. In a scene such as Ji-Yoon trying in vain to negotiate with a terrified babysitter as Ju Ju bats her eyes, Oh is simultaneously wrenching and completely understandable in her character’s moment of flustered (and, sorry, very funny) panic.
Oh consistently does the kind of acting that can smooth bumpy scripts to sell just about anything. It’s a relief, then, to see her dig into something like “The Chair,” which only sparingly requires that skill. Otherwise, she just gets to act the hell out of her role, and what a treat to get to see her do it.
“The Chair” premieres Friday, August 20, on Netflix.