It is a truth universally acknowledged that many Netflix shows stretch on far longer than they rightfully should. When a scripted series on the platform actually leaves a viewer wanting more, it’s weirdly exciting, even though it’s also the equivalent of offering compliments to the chef when your stomach is still rumbling.
The Chair, an immersion in the politics and personal relationships within the English department at prestigious, traditional Pembroke University, is exactly that kind of series. The dramedy consists of only six half-hour episodes, all dropping tomorrow. Though the economy of the storytelling, spearheaded by showrunner Amanda Peet, who co-created the series with screenwriter-academic Annie Julia Wyman, is commendable, I easily could have watched at least four more episodes. This wry, observant portrait of the messy scholars charged with preparing young adults to live lives of purpose — and, ideally, some potential to repay their student loans — makes you wish the semester went on for a little while longer.
The exacting vibrancy of the series is matched at every turn by its star, Sandra Oh, who plays Ji-Yoon Kim, a hardworking professor who has finally ascended the ranks of Pembroke’s English department to become its chair. Our introduction to Ji-Yoon in the first episode is a perfect piece of comedy and a bit of foreshadowing for how things are about to go. The camera follows Ji-Yoon as she walks across campus and into the English building, with its sepia-tinged paintings of old white men and its grand spines of books stacked side by side and on top of one another. Every image sings of academia and literature and decades of reverence for the intellect.
When Ji-Yoon reaches the front door of her office, she sees her name on the door: Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, Chair, Department of English, the first woman of color — hell, the first woman, period — to ever serve in this position. Inside, she sits down behind her desk, leans back happily in her chair … and immediately the seat breaks, sending Ji-Yoon toppling to the ground, unable to do anything other than shout “What the fuck?” as she hits the carpet.
Things continue to fall apart around Ji-Yoon from the second she takes over. Her dean (David Morse) wants her to figure out how to nudge the department’s three oldest professors, who also happen to have the lowest class enrollments, toward retirement. One of those professors, Joan Hambling (a truly sublime Holland Taylor), a friend and mentor to Ji-Yoon, has become the victim of what appears to be sexual discrimination: She’s the only English prof whose office has been inexplicably moved into the basement of the campus wellness center, and she needs Ji-Yoon’s help to rectify the situation. Ji-Yoon is determined to lift up her younger peers, specifically by granting the distinguished lectureship to the extremely bright and well-liked Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), the only Black woman in the department. But, not surprisingly, there’s pushback on that front from the very white conventional powers that be.
Then there’s Bill (Jay Duplass), Pembroke’s star professor and former English chair who stepped down following the death of his wife a year prior. As the series begins, he is navigating his grief by drinking too much, oversleeping, and sometimes forgetting the names of the classes he’s teaching. When he briefly makes a “heil Hitler” gesture during a lecture, it gets taken out of context and circulated as a GIF on social media, sparking demands for his resignation, which gives Ji-Yoon another mess to clean up, one complicated by the fact that she and Bill have romantic feelings for each other that they’ve never pursued.
On top of all that, Ji-Yoon is a single mom trying to manage her relationship with her daughter, Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), who has major behavioral issues and seems capable of warming up only to one person: Bill.
Just writing all of that out feels like a lot, especially for a season of television that can be watched in half an afternoon. But The Chair never feels like it has taken on too much. Its quick pace and sometimes frenetic vibe matches perfectly with what’s happening in Ji-Yoon’s life, where every time she turns a corner she finds a fire to extinguish while her cell phone buzzes with news of yet another blaze.
Oh, a master of dropping wry remarks with the precision of a neurosurgeon, naturally exudes competency even when Ji-Yoon is having crises of confidence. While she makes misguided choices, the show never needs to go out of its way to qualify them by reminding us that Ji-Yoon is actually very smart and deserving of her position. You can feel all of that in the way Oh speaks and carries herself, as a woman frazzled but driven and sometimes brave enough to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.
Oh also has wonderful chemistry with Duplass, who infuses Bill with warmth and a sense of humor that keeps running even when it might be best for him to put it in park. Every time Duplass looks at Oh, his eyes practically extend a hand and beg her to dance with him. That fizzy rom-com nestled inside The Chair’s satire of old-school thinking and academic inertia adds another layer of joy to the series.
It would have been very easy for The Chair to pointedly mock either the old white guard of the university or the woke students who go there. To be clear, there is certainly some mockery, particularly of the Establishment. Professor McHale (Ron Crawford) is the oldest member of the English faculty and so out of it that he can barely stay awake or keep track of his medications. Morse’s Dean Paul Larson can’t even pronounce Yaz’s name correctly. But the show also calls out students for being entitled and an occasional tendency to rush to judgement; at one point, they start a “No Nazis at Pembroke” chant during a town hall with Bill when it’s pretty clear that Bill is no Nazi. Still, the show does not punch down and takes seriously their strong feelings about wanting better representation and leadership that listens to their concerns. A storyline in which students prepare to protest if Yaz does not receive tenure feels especially timely in light of the recent uproar over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s initially not being offered tenure at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
The Chair understands how to poke sticks in the eyes of people and issues worthy of being poked, but it never loses its sense of humanity. As stubborn as some of those fusty old profs can be, the series shows us the insecurity, particularly in the cases of Joan and Elliot Rentz (the always wonderful Bob Balaban), that fuels their desire to hold onto their jobs with both fists clenched — a phenomenon, by the way, not limited to the world of academia. Even when it’s clear we shouldn’t agree with some of their choices, the episodes invite us to at least feel a measure of sympathy for what they’re experiencing.
The tone of The Chair reminds me a lot of Togetherness, which makes sense since Peet starred in that HBO series and Duplass co-created it. Like that slice-of-life combo of drama and comedy, this Netflix series has a strong sardonic streak but also a beating heart. It understands that every person — whether you’re the daughter of a busy single mother, a frustrated student, or a scholar worried you’ve aged out of relevancy — ultimately is just trying to feel seen and wanted. It shows us how all those people function in a world that looks pretty close to real life: funny, and melancholy, and a constant shambles, where the best you can hope for is a spot to settle comfortably, one that won’t completely collapse under your own weight.