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‘The Chair’ elegantly delves into the complexities of 21st century college problems

There are quite a few shows that explore high school or college student life, but not a whole ton that really cover that of professors and, more specifically, department chairs. The recently released Netflix series “The Chair” takes a stab at this new perspective by following the hectic life of Ji Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the first woman—and certainly woman of color—to be the English Department Chair at Pembroke University. Although this new position is a huge honor, both Ji Yoon and the audience learn that holding this position comes with more problems than it might have had on the label. There’s the fact that almost all of the remaining professors in the English department are old white men with old-fashioned ways. Then, there’s the fact that recently widowed Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) is one badly-timed comment away from being fired and that the only other faculty of color Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) does not get the recognition she deserves. In short, Ji Yoon has, what she accurately describes “a ticking time bomb” of a department in her hands. 

 

Despite the chaos of all the mentioned storylines, “The Chair” somehow manages to address the issues of racism, misogyny and even ageism all within the short span of six 30-minute long episodes. Because of that, this show goes to prove that discussing these kinds of issues doesn’t require long, heavy-handed lectures about why racism or sexism sucks—everything is done with a quiet intellect and subtlety, as well as genuine respect for how deeply these issues run. One of the clearer examples of this is in how Ji Yoon struggles against upper administration, specifically Dean Larson (David Morse) in helping secure tenure for Yaz. Very much like real life, there’s no explicit gesture of racism—Dean Larson and the other old white farts of the English department never come out and say that they disapprove of Yaz moving up in faculty, but they coincidentally never respect her either. For example, when Ji Yoon puts up Yaz for Distinguished Lecturer, she finds out from Dean Larson much later that a donor wanted to put up someone else for the lecturer instead—David Duchovny, of all people (who, yes, plays as himself in this show). Ji Yoon points out that Yaz is much more qualified, but her attempts to push her colleague into the spotlight effectively go ignored. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here, and the point only clarifies itself when upset students of color march up to Ji Yoon with their own demands in securing a better role for Yaz. 

 

But that’s only one specific instance of how the show goes into a matter as difficult as racism within academia. There’s the matter of misogyny on all levels within this show, and like the way “The Chair” deals with racism, there’s nothing particularly didactic about the way it goes about demonstrating how misogyny harms faculty members. The most telling detail of this show perhaps presents itself in the story following Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), a senior faculty member. After nearly thirty years of teaching at Pembroke University, she finally loses patience with the way she’s been treated by the school when her office is moved to the basement, a problem her senior male colleagues do not have to deal with. Joan is by no means a perfect character—to be honest, I didn’t really like her, mostly because she outright shames the Title IX officer for wearing shorts—but she’s a sympathetic character. If anything, this specific storyline shows how women don’t necessarily have to be perfect, socially woke beings to still want or deserve some modicum of respect in a misogynistic society. Joan’s old, so that means she’s stuck with some old ideas of what counts as misogynistic behavior and what doesn’t.  The audience gets a brief glimpse of just how much she must have kept quiet when she explodes, “I want someone to acknowledge what happened.” It’s moments like these that show how deeply these issues run within the institution, and it makes the audience wonder exactly how much pride certain faculty members—especially female faculty members, as well as faculty of color—have to swallow in order to hold onto a position or just make their own lives easier. 

 

However, while all of these topics are heavy, another gem of “The Chair” is that it balances out all of these complicated topics with some more personal slice-of-life stories from Ji Yoon’s personal life. One of them involves the matter of her complicated relationship with her adopted daughter Ju Ju, who, unlike her mother, isn’t Korean. This doesn’t stop Ji Yoon or Ju Ju’s grandfather (Ji Yong Lee) from speaking Korean or bringing Ju Ju to their extended family’s very Korean celebrations, but there are some struggles there. Ji Yoon obviously wants to be a good mother, and Ju Ju, as just a little kid, struggles on her own with being told that Ji Yoon isn’t her “real mom” and all that other hurtful nonsense that outsiders feel the need to inflict on an adopted child. All of this on top of Ji Yoon’s attempts to balance out her life with Ju Ju and her life as a department chair make for a chaotic mix, but there are sweeter moments: Ji Yoon’s teasing but meaningful relationship with her colleague Bill, her colleague Bill’s parental relationship with Ju Ju and Ju Ju’s eventual speaking Korean to her mother by the end of the series. Because of all of these different dynamics, Ji Yoon feels like a real person. 

 

In the end, I think that’s what gets at the heart of the show—that these are supposed to be real problems happening to real people. None of the mentioned problems are deemed trivial, and they’re certainly not simple issues that can be solved by grandiose “don’t be a racist, misogynistic jerk” speeches that television shows sometimes like to pretend work as a solution. There’s a lot to unpack, and sometimes unpacking takes a lot of time and patience, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like anyone’s moving in the right direction. “The Chair” isn’t afraid to back down from admitting to that—this show willingly admits that these things are hard, and sometimes the only thing we can do is at least try our best.

 

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