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Netflix’s comedy The Chair finds the bitter humor in woke college politics

Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh stars in a series trying to do too much, but still finding some strong laughs

David Morse as the college dean puts his hand on Sandra Oh’s shoulder at an awkward faculty party in Netflix’s The Chair Photo: Eliza Morse/Netflix

Within the first minutes of Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman’s six-episode Netflix comedy miniseries The Chair, it’s clear Ji-Yoon Kim (Killing Eve star Sandra Oh), the new English chair at the lower-tier ivy university Pembroke, is in trouble. She isn’t just the new woman of color in the position of chair, she’s the first. And she’s inherited a list of problems, including a student body that doesn’t want to prop up a canonical literature filled with problematic white men, a department with decreasing enrollment and shrinking funds, a trio of aging professors, and a self-destructive colleague. Ji-Yoon is also a single mother to her uncontrollable daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla).

Wyman and Peet are the perfect writing combo for the absurdist comedy that comes out of that scenario. Wyman, an Asian-American scholar, understands both the contours of a stuffy university, and the rapid charge toward diversity it’s thrashing against. Her expertise allows for sharp character dynamics. And Peet’s background in acting may have prompted her to offer her cast a series of big, memorable swings. But while The Chair is a smart, hysterical critique of the arbitrary politics in academia that have worked against women and people of color for decades, it struggles to shape a complete world beyond that limited scope.

Oh is a godsend for this series. She has the wit and timing to carry the erudite jokes, and the dramatic range to bring to life this emotionally torn woman. It’s clear she’s been handed a ticking time bomb with this role. It’s a familiar machination: An institution wants to prove its diversity bonafides, so the leadership promotes a person of color into an unwinnable situation, where they’re expected to work magic, or else. Oh dramatizes those competing interests in the same way Claire Foy did in The Crown — another series with a woman parsing her role as leader, lover, mother, and friend against the craggy white establishment.

A panel of the “craggy white establishment” in The Chair, including Bob Balaban and four other older, grouchy-looking professors Photo: Eliza Morse / Netflix

The series is full of sticky dynamics, like the old-vs.-new-school divide between Melville scholar Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah). Rentz once packed the halls, but his class size has dwindled. Yaz is fun, energetic, and on the rise as a professor confronting the problematic components of older literary works. She’s up for tenure, so must still be deferential to Rentz, a white man with enough power to blunt her career. This is a series well aware of spaces: the lack thereof for folks of color to advance, to wield their intellectual freedom without harm of repudiation by their white colleagues, and the extent those same privileged colleagues physically take up space.

Another larger-than-life personality is Joan (Holland Taylor), an elderly Chaucer scholar who’s often as horny as the medieval era she studies. The university’s first tenured woman professor, she’s spent decades turning the other cheek against gendered insults. Joan, Rentz and another professor are on the chopping block: The Dean (David Morse) wants to fire them for their dwindling class sizes. They’re obstinate in the face of change, and totally out of touch with their students, technology, and the trends of their scholarship. The dynamic is played for laughs, but it does whiff of an unconscious ageism on the part of the showrunners.

Beyond the hall of the university, the rest of the show languishes. A romance between Bill (Jay Duplass) and Ji-Yoon is teased, but the brief half-hour episodes lack the time to organically develop their relationship. Bill is also spiraling. He’s under threat of termination after making a tasteless Nazi-salute joke, prompting rage from the overtly woke student body. Those students are reactionary to a fault, though, more like an alt-right wet dream of the supposed ills of diversity-obsessed college campuses than a compliment aimed at the critical thinking skills or sensitivities of students who care about politics.

Ji-Yoon and Ju Ju’s relationship is also woefully underdeveloped. Ju Ju often acts out, sometimes hurling hurtful insults at her mother. Ju Ju is dealing with issues of heritage and diaspora, but those issues are so flattened and unexplored that it’s difficult to see her as more than a narrative device, a half-nod to a richer family dynamic that never emerges. Even Ji-Yoon suffers from tacked-on character development in an episode that begins with Ju Ju working on a Día de los Muertos project for school, and ends with a revelation so sudden it accomplishes none of its intended emotional impact.

Nana Mensah as a young, Black professor in a line of much older white men in Netflix’s The Chair Photo: Eliza Morse/Netflix

Wyman and Peet know enough to vocalize the predicament faced by characters like Yaz — after seeing Ji-Yoon’s struggle, she rethinks the pressures of being the first Black tenured woman at Pembroke. But the story is too shallow to really explore her situation. The writers also can’t articulate the inner turmoil resting within a girl like Ju Ju, who’s caught between two cultures.

There’s a lot of good happening in The Chair, though. Oh’s talent at balancing dramatic realness and side-splitting comedy with aplomb has always been apparent. It’s especially so here. Characters like Joan are so endearing. And there’s a delectable pinpoint in the way the series plays the politics of academia for laughs. There’s also a celebrity cameo that navigates how the rise of celebrity professors, in want of prestige, can hurt the careers of serious academics. It’s the show’s best-articulated point, leading to its funniest beats. But its characters of color are underwritten to such fractured degrees, it’s difficult to know them in ways that are not broad. The Chair’s creators try to do too much with not enough time, and they barely make the grade on their lofty representative goals. But the series is still supple and sweet enough to win the heart of any college grad.

The Chair debuts on Netflix on August 20.