Sandra Oh Deserves Better than Netflix’s Uncomfortable ChairPhoto Courtesy of Netflix TV Reviews The Chair
This article originally published August 4th, 2021
Look, we can all agree that Sandra Oh is a national treasure. The first woman of Asian descent to be recognized in a lead actress category at the Primetime Emmy Awards, she’s a trailblazer both onscreen and off, the kind of woman most of us would happily watch helm a Doritos ad if we had to. And after the disappointment that was Killing Eve Season 3, there couldn’t possibly be a better moment to watch her tackle the lead role in a series like Netflix’s The Chair, a timely story about the difficulties women face in the world of academia.
Unfortunately for all of us, The Chair turns out to be a project that’s hardly worthy of her involvement, a bait and switch of a series that only gives vague lip service to the idea of exploring the festering sexism and racism in the world of higher education. Worst of all, it largely ignores its complicated female lead in favor of telling the story of yet another white man who seems destined to fail upward despite himself.
Perhaps the fact that this series is the first offering from former Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss under their new Netflix deal should have been enough of a warning that this sort of in-name-only feminist storytelling was not only possible but likely, but it’s still incredibly disappointing, nevertheless.
On paper, The Chair has a ton of potential. It follows the story of Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Oh), who has just been named the new Chair of the English Department at prestigious Pembroke University. Ji-Yoon is the first woman to chair the department and one of just a handful of female English professors at Pembroke. Like many other elite academic institutions, Pembroke’s English faculty is primarily comprised of older white men, the sort of professors whose insistence on stringent interpretations of the canon can often be a turn off to students seeking to make classic literature more relatable to their modern-day lives.
As one of just two women of color in her department, Ji-Yoon is determined to change that. But she finds herself struggling to stick to her guns as she’s forced to face the sad realities of life in department leadership—dwindling funds, declining enrollment, and a dean that insists the way to fix both those problems is staff reductions. Her older colleagues fear change, reject calls to modernize their syllabi, and slow-walk tenure proceedings for the department’s only Black professor. And despite Ji-Yoon’s best efforts, the administration would rather give the annual Distinguished Lectureship to a celebrity candidate in the hopes of getting butts in seats rather than reward that same instructor, Yasmin McKay (Nana Mensah), for her focus on contemporary topics like race and use of social media in the classroom.
Ji-Yoon’s job is further complicated by her best friend and possible love interest Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), the sort of incredibly messy white male instructor who feels like a cautionary tale for women in academia at every level. A recent widower, Bill is generally a disaster in the way that our society only ever forgives supposedly brilliant men for being—from showing up late to class, counting on his teaching assistant to cover for him, maintaining inappropriate relationships with students, and spending what feels like half the show in varying states of inebriation. (Just imagine any of the series’ women committing one of these offenses. Oh wait, you can’t, because it would never happen!)
He’s lazy, inconsiderate, and seems to be doing little more than coasting on the fact that he’s popular. He teaches a pretentious sounding section called “Death and Modernism”and published a book with an equally obnoxious title (Evening’s Empire). Things only get worse after a lecture of Bill’s involving a Nazi salute goes viral on social media, forcing Ji-Yoon to scramble to pick up the pieces and hold her department’s reputation together. If this all sounds eye-rollingly annoying, well, it is. And things are only made worse by the fact that The Chair seems determined that audiences should see Bill as some sort of sympathetic figure, a man who’s worthy of not just Ji-Yoon’s affections but a place in her family.
As Bill’s situation escalates, The Chair slowly shifts from being an intriguing story about a groundbreaking woman to a sadly predictable one about a tiresome man. Ji-Yoon becomes less of a trailblazer than a sidekick, fighting to keep Bill’s job with little forward momentum of her own, narratively speaking. How does she feel about the reality of the job she wanted for so long? Does she resent Bill for putting her in the middle of his feud with Pembroke administration? Can she survive in a role that requires her to serve so many masters at once? The Chair doesn’t seem to view those questions as terribly worthy of exploration, because it never tells us.
Still, Oh is of course as wonderful as you probably expected, giving Ji-Yoon the kind of complicated layers through her performance that are not at all apparent in the series’ script. The Chair only sketches in the barest elements of her home life, but the bits we do see are fascinating, from Ji-Yoon’s struggles to parent her adopted Hispanic daughter Ju-Ju (Everly Carginilla), to her complicated relationship with her own Korean heritage, evidenced primarily by her conversations with her father Habi (Ji Yong Lee). I would have happily traded every moment of her weird romantic pining over Bill (barf!!) for more of these intriguing family dynamics, but The Chair seems content to leave them in the background.
Elsewhere, Holland Taylor is an utter delight as Joan Hambling, a Chaucer professor who loves the Wife of Bath and is uncomfortably aware of her own powerless position as both an older member of the faculty and a woman in a male-dominated profession. (Chaucer scholars are not usually known for their strident feminism, let’s put it that way.) As she attempts to navigate things like Title IX complaints and departmental ethics concerns, she also must acknowledge the ways her gender has forced her to essentially accept second class citizen status over the years of her career, and how those choices have hampered her professional progress.
For some reason, Netflix is promoting this series as some form of comedy, which is true in the same vague way that the only actual ironic thing about the Alanis Morrisette song “Ironic” is the fact that none of the experiences it describes constitute irony. Very little about The Chair is humorous, and if you find yourself laughing, it’s more likely than not to be of the uncomfortable sort. And that’s a shame, because the bones of a decent series are easily visible in the mess of this show’s final product.
In a parallel universe, there’s a version of this show that focuses on Ji-Yoon, Yasmin, and Joan as its leads, where the subplot of Bill’s public scandal doesn’t exist, and has a story that really attempts to reckon with the things women must constantly sacrifice in the name of success in the male-dominated world of academia. The Chair is not that show in any respect, but it could have been—and that’s maybe the most infuriating disappointment of all.
The Chair premieres Friday, August 20th on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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