Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman (2021)
Facts for You:
Where to Watch: Steaming on Netflix
Length: 6 episodes of 30 minutes each
Names You Might Know: Sandra Oh, Bob Balaban, Jay Duplass, Holland Taylor
Rating: TV-MA (content advisory)
He Said: Anyone who has ever been involved in higher education in any capacity will find The Chair a fascinating and often painfully accurate depiction of life at an American university. And anyone who has been part of a college English department will wonder whether the show’s creators got their material from eavesdropping in faculty meetings and offices. And anyone who has actually been the chair of a college English department will suffer post-traumatic stress as the situations depicted trigger memories of similar incidents in their own tour of duty.
Annie Julia Wyman, one of the limited series’ co-creators, has an M.A. degree in English from Stanford University, as well as an English M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard, so although she seems never to have been a department chair or tenure-line professor, she has definitely seen the trials, tribulations, and interdepartmental politics of college English departments close up. Amana Peet, the series’ other co-creator, is an actress with a long list of credits to her name (most recently TV’s Togetherness), and a husband, David Benioff, who produced a little thing called Game of Thrones and who, with fellow Thrones producer D.B. Weiss, also produced this six-part series.
With six half-hour episodes, this is a series that is easily bingeable in a single night, and if you are at all intrigued by the premise, once you see the first episode you probably will want to binge it. In the first place, you have Sandra Oh, fresh from her success in Killing Eve, starring as Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, sympathetically and believably portraying the first woman (and first woman of color) to be appointed chair of the English department at the fictional Pembroke College—a “lower tier Ivy league school,” whatever that might mean (think Cornell or Dartmouth?).
She is faced with a series of problems from her first day on the job: First, of course, there is the perennial problem faced by English departments in America: Budget cuts and decreasing enrollments (the one feeds off the other). Her not-particularly-sympathetic Dean (David Morse of St. Elsewhere fame) points out to her that the three most senior (and therefore most highly paid) professors in her department have the lowest enrollments in their classes, and wants her to convince them to take the retirement package that the school is offering as an incentive.
Wanting to save her senior faculty, Ji-Yoon gets creative and has the most formidable of the elders, Professor Rentz (Bob Balaban) co-teach with rising star Professor McKay (Nana Mensah of TV’s New Amsterdam), an extremely popular young professor whose publications are gaining her a national reputation. But Ji-Yoon soon discovers what all chairs eventually learn, and that is if you have a department of twelve, making a decision that benefits one faculty member, creates eleven enemies and one ingrate. Rentz forms the opinion that McKay “doesn’t want to teach students, she wants to hang out with them.” And his opinion seriously threatens McKay’s chances for tenure.
In order to enhance McKay’s profile on campus and her chances for tenure—which Ji-Yoon desperately wants since McKay is potentially her most valuable faculty member as well as being the only other woman of color in her department—Ji-Yoon taps McKay to give the prestigious departmental lecture. But she is thwarted in this because the donor wants the honor to go to a certain actor-turned-best-selling-author she has met (Peet’s former co-star David Duchovny, who turns in a hilarious cameo). The Dean is all in favor of this, since he thinks it will bring in a packed house for the lecture.
But those are Ji-Yoon’s minor concerns. The most explosive issue she must deal with is the former chair, Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass of TV’s The Mindy Project). Dobson, a recent widower whose only child leaves for college as the series opens, is falling apart in his personal life, drinks too much, and can barely drag himself to class. And when he does, he’s not thinking clearly. When he is introducing the ideas of Absurdism and Nazism into a lecture on modernist thought and politics, he parodies a Nazi salute in class. Some of his students video the salute, and taken out of context, it goes viral; in an atmosphere when anti-Semitic violence is on the rise, the students of Pembroke rise up to demand Dobson’s dismissal. Dobson, a tenured full professor, makes the worst possible choices in the matter: He arrogantly refuses to take the students’ complaints seriously, and when he does try to address the issue, things go completely wrong. And so Ji-Yoon—her actions complicated by an ambiguously romantic attachment to Dobson—somehow has to try to save his job.
It’s really no exaggeration when Ji-Yoon says halfway through this chaos, “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.” What do you think, Jones?
She Said: As we watched, I was just waiting for her to say something to this effect, watching her colleagues demonstrate that they’d be just as happy with their jobs if she failed. Maybe even happier.
I haven’t been a department chair, but I’ve been married to one (who was also a dean), and I think this show does a great deal to explore the emotional labor of academia’s women as they began the work and struggle to infiltrate that bastion of white male power. The show is funny, and it’s “snackable” because it is delivered in intense bite sizes with humorous and touching asides that release us briefly from the tension, so it’s not all trauma all the time, but when you’re done watching it and step away, it feels painful to recall, because that trauma is real for lots of folks.
What I found devastatingly realistic is how the older woman in the department, played by beloved actress Holland Taylor, who had her own struggles gaining any ground among her colleagues, becomes disenchanted with Ji-Yoon and her leadership, and how delicate the sisterhood is among all of the women who are just trying to get their due in this department because of the power that rests with the older men who aren’t forced to rethink any of their assumptions about their value and the value of others as times change, as faculties and student bodies become more inclusive. The women are fractured from each other and from academe as they run around behind the scenes trying to keep their jobs, get ahead and have personal lives that sustain them.
I love Sandra Oh (I just rewatched Sideways, a film she positively lights up), and the frenetic crises in this miniseries with its loving look at its flawed characters makes the trauma watchable, but I’m sure for many, it may not make them feel seen. It may make them feel triggered.
He Said: I’m glad you brought up Holland Taylor (from The Practice and Two and a Half Men). She plays Professor Joan Hambling, who after 32 years in the department has her office moved to the basement of the gymnasium, has some wildly comic scenes dealing with the Title IX officer, who seems to be the only one on campus with a budget even smaller than the English department’s. And there’s a scene in which the one character that you expect to be on Ji-Yoon’s side, Professor McKay, the new kid for whom the department can’t change fast enough, chides her chair, saying “You act like you owe them something.” The fact is, she does owe the rest of the department something—in particular she owes Professor Hambling something—the woman who broke ground in this department and fought her way to tenure as the first woman in the department to get there. Ji-Yoon probably recognizes this on some level, though McKay takes for granted some of what Hambling and Ji-Yoon had to fight for, though she will have her own battles to fight—the situation calls to mind the recent brouhaha over North Carolina’s denial of tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a woman of color teaching Critical Race Theory in the English department of that institution. That’s how real this show is.
Sandra Oh is marvelous in this role. Jay Duplass is alternately hilarious and sympathetic in his role as the arrogantly out of control Professor Dobson. And Bob Balaban skillfully manages to avoid being simply a villainous Mesozoic barrier to the “new” but rather someone, like a significant number of senior faculty, who believes that the way they were taught literature and in their turn have continued to teach it was objectively the truth and was where literature’s intrinsic value lay. But I will say that if these two guys are the possible alternatives to Ji-Yoon as department chair, this old adage applies: The only reason to be department chair is to keep your colleagues from doing it.
I’ve seen some reviews criticize the series for trying to do too much—for adding too many complications to be adequately treated in a series this short. But let me say this about that: From my own experience as an English department chair, I can attest that there were always at least this many problems to deal with at one time. It’s just a part of what makes the series true to life. I’m going to go ahead and give this series four Hitchcocks, for its excellent performances and for its realistic attention to detail.
She Said: I agree, Ruud: Four Hitchcocks for The Chair. Watch it if you haven’t already, but watch it carefully if the traumas we’ve described may be too real to you. The beauty of this series is that while its humor and situations are specifically rooted in academia, it’s easily translatable to all workplaces as individuals outside the white patriarchy’s traditional power monopoly struggle to find their places so they can make the contributions we all need them to make.
We Watched it So You Don’t Have To:
He Said: The Green Knight
Hot Take: As long as we’re talking about English departments, it might be useful to consider this latest attempt to make a movie out of the classic and popular medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Well, I’m flattering it by calling it an attempt to do so. In fact, it’s David Lowery’s distortion of the general idea of the Gawain story in order to make a kind of “art film,” which is in fact self-indulgent and essentially meaningless crap. Why was Gawain’s mother engaged in witchcraft that was going to get her son killed? How did Gawain end up with the axe when the thief that stole his horse rode off with it? What was Saint Winifred there for, other than to show another decapitation? Why the talking fox? Why did Gawain’s girlfriend have such a short haircut? Why were the king and queen so old when in the poem they are in their first bloom of youth? And don’t even get me started on what happens with the green girdle. And by the way, if you’re going to use “thees” and “thous” to make your language sound medieval, at least use them grammatically correctly. This is two hours of my life (plus $20) that I’ll never get back.
To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/
You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1
Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.