If a project includes Sandra Oh, you’re probably going to want to binge-watch it. Fortunately for us, this applies to Netflix’s upcoming dramedy, The Chair.
In the miniseries, Oh stars as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, a professor who becomes the chair of her university’s English department, which is more of a “ticking time bomb”. Ji-Yoon also is also faced with the tasks of raising her headstrong daughter Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla) and dealing with crises caused by her colleague (and love interest) Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass).
Throughout the show, Oh delivers on her ability to showcase a multifaceted character like Ji-Yoon. We watch, with held breath, as she navigates the racism and sexism embedded in academia while keeping her department afloat and doing what is best for her colleagues. Especially the only other woman of color and sole Black woman in the department, Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah).
Though Yaz has a more minor role compared to other characters, she is inarguably important. Faced with older colleagues who have as much melanin and fortitude as a porcelain teacup, she also deals with racism in higher education.
Mensah’s character also seems to be one of the few faculty members who understand the assignment. That is, adapting to a modern learning environment and engaging with a new generation of students. While other classes struggle, hers are full of students who are eager to learn. Still, Professor McKay finds herself lacking respect and acknowledgment from her associates.
As a Black woman who spent four years at a predominantly white institution, or PWI, this show immediately caught my attention. How would The Chair tackle what it is like to be in such an environment? Throughout the miniseries, it is easy for viewers to see the struggle of both Yaz and Ji-Yoon in a setting that was not designed for them to exist in, let alone thrive. This part of the story will hopefully give women of color the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences.
The Chair explores other issues in addition to the professional conflicts of Oh’s and Mensah’s characters. For example, we also see faculty members faced with declining enrollment and “encouraged” retirement. One such person is Professor Joan Hambling, played by Holland Taylor. The twists and turns of Joan’s story are both humorous and solemn. Viewers will find themselves feeling frustration, compassion, sadness, and amusement all in one episode.
And yet, the emotions evoked by Joan’s story are nothing compared to the “Jeremy Bearimy” that is Professor Bill Dobson. In fact, much of the conflict that the department faces is because of him.
Bill is a man facing loss trying to keep his life together without a strong support network. This creates a chasm with his boss/sort-of-lover Ji-Yoon, who does her best to help him, personally and professionally. It is easy to empathize with his struggle to process his emotions while getting through the day.
Personally, though, empathy can only go so far. Bill is messy and can be irritating to people who don’t have the liberties of being a white man. Duplass manages to portray this character well, making him one of the more complex characters of the show. Bill’s inability to take responsibility for his slip-ups eventually reaches a breaking point in the series when a crisis unravels. Though the issue itself is very realistic, its resolution is where the story begins to lose traction.
The Chair shows us who Ji-Yoon is as a mother and a friend, but at times, it feels like these parts of her identity are footnotes. And while we also get some glimpses into what she is like as an educator there could have been more of Oh’s performance of Ji-Yoon.
While her performance is well worth the watch, it feels like the series is too small for Oh. Ji-Yoon is a very well-written character. But does the show’s length and folding in of so many plot points give her enough space to be?
The answer isn’t clear-cut. Bill’s crisis suffocates the narrative to the point that it cannot resolve fully. The sudden shift in focus halfway through the show leaves little room for Ji-Yoon, Yaz, or Joan’s stories. The only character’s plot that seems to reach any kind of resolution is Joan’s. And even that is so hastily wrapped up that it resembles a haphazardly decorated present that has been punted 20 yards under a half-decorated Christmas tree.
For a story that starts strongly, the ending of this show is disappointing to watch. This is all the more frustrating when considering one crucial fact. There is no way Ji-Yoon, Yaz, or Joan would be able to totally fuck up like Bill. As people of marginalized identities, they wouldn’t have the room to express personal distress like him. This fact makes it even harder to empathize with Bill as his narrative eclipses the others.
The Chair shows what it is like to navigate higher education with nuanced characters. And we wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to watch this series just to support Sandra Oh (because who wouldn’t).
But by the end, you might find yourself missing what could have been. While wondering if The Chair succeeds in what it is trying to say.