Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh) is the newly-minted chair of the English Department at Pembroke University, an institution of higher learning that has struggled financially and publicly with its appearance. She is subject to Dean Paul Larson (David Morse) and in love with fellow English teacher Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), and trying to stay on step ahead of the ring of older men who have ruled the sage halls of the department for years. But it’s a struggle, and not just because she’s navigating single parenting of her adoptive daughter Ju Ju and trying to co-exist with her traditional father, too.
The Chair, written by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman and produced by the Game of Thrones creators, is HILARIOUS, and … heartbreaking. Ji-Yoon finds herself in undocumented territory, navigating her older female colleague, the wonderful Holland Taylor as Joan Hambling, as well as older male colleagues like Bob Balaban’s Elliott Rentz who doesn’t believe a woman (or a minority) can do the job a man can. The new chair is pushing for Yaz McKay’s (Nana Mensah) tenure, but the department doesn’t like her “style” of teaching, which can’t be separated from her person as a black woman. All of this is political, and takes away from Ji-Yoon’s desire to focus on helping teachers be real influences in their students’ lives.
As if the work life wouldn’t be enough, Ji-Yoon is trying to determine where she stands with Bill, who still grieves his wife and is floundering in terms of addiction, influence with young people, and, suddenly, a moment caught on social media that creates a firestorm on the campus. He’s her best friend but she’s now his boss, and she’s significantly more aware of optics and power than he has the capacity for in the midst of his mourning. Thankfully, he proves to be a good pseudo-co-parent for Ju Ju, who has struggles of her own as the daughter of an Asian woman who is really Hispanic by birth. Identity is so huge here – for Ji-Yoon as a woman, Asian, mother, professor, boss, subordinate, leader, thinker, creator. It’s so cleverly written that The Chair draws us in and challenges us to see even more of Ji-Yoon, and ourselves.
When the six episodes were over, I wanted more. It was so quick-witted, multi-layered, and tender, both in laughter in tears, that I wished that it had run a whole sitcom season. But Netflix served it up, and as a one-time English professor, I found myself grinning (and gritting my teeth) at the moments I lived through or watched my colleagues live through in the real world. It’s absolutely entertaining, but it also raises so many questions for the audience to consider, like:
-How do we determine a person’s value when their approach is different than ours, while also not letting their superficial differences create a barrier?
-How do we determine what is good and wholesome of our tradition to hold onto, and how do we figure out what to let go of?
-How do we take responsibility for our actions when we get things wrong, while also not accepting guilt shoveled onto us by others when it’s not our responsibility?
-How do we grieve, healthily, and create space for others to heal, too?
I can only hope there’s a second season of The Chair, but I imagine it will require new characters (like True Detective) and not spin forward like Game of Thrones.