It’s rare to see a series arrive as fully realized as The Chair. The cobwebby sets are transportingly specific, from an “Ashes of Problem Students” desk tchotchke to the stale coffee languishing in a decades-old carafe. The knitwear is exquisitely chunky. The establishing shots are all spires and dusty mantelpieces and books tumbling from overfull bookcases. Neatness, like newness, is the telltale concern of an unserious mind. At Pembroke College, you’re only as impressive as your blazer is threadbare.
The frigid first day of the semester marks Professor Ji-Yoon Kim’s (Sandra Oh) first as chair of the English department. She’s the first woman and, I’m guessing, the first non-white person ever to hold the post. The antique desk chair she inherits breaks immediately, which works as a succinct analogy for the state of her department. The budget is being “gutted” and the students want to code, not read Chaucer. Dean Larson (David Morse) tells her to trim the fat by persuading three septuagenarian professors to retire. From what little we see of their teaching, it wouldn’t be a disservice to the student body, either.
Nonetheless, the department’s existential crisis isn’t sufficient to curb its infighting. Ji-Yoon’s first meeting opens with a running tally of who’s missing. There’s Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), a five o’clock shadow of a man who’s getting drunk at the airport bar after watching his daughter fly away to college. Already a widow, now he’s living alone. Professor Joan Hambling (a frisky Holland Taylor) is missing, too. Depending on what baggage you bring to The Chair, Ji-Yoon’s defense of the humanities can ring either earnest or ironic. “What we teach them cannot be quantified or put down on a résumé as a skill.” She finishes with a grandiose quote from that most well-known defender of the Western canon, Harold Bloom: “Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?”
As if to underscore the ambiguity, Joan barrels in to bemoan her office’s relocation to the wellness-center basement. If that reflects the English department’s standing within the university, the department’s collective outrage is a measure of its self-importance. The only person really listening to Ji-Yoon is Yasmin McKay (Nana Mensah), a young Black untenured professor on whom the future of American studies at Pembroke depends.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Ji-Yoon’s vision of the future. Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) is scandalized to find his stodgy survey is under-scribed when Yaz’s “Sex and the Novel” is overenrolled. Ji-Yoon soon merges the sections to spare Elliot’s ego, which is the catastrophe Yaz predicts. Elliot mistakes Yaz’s innovative pedagogy, like students tweeting their fave lines from Moby Dick to encourage close reading, for naked pandering. His opinion wouldn’t matter, except that he’s also chairing her tenure case. According to Ji-Yoon, he “makes or breaks” careers, but it’s worth asking whose career he’s made in the past. By the looks of department demographics, the answer is “other white guys.”
Which brings us back to Bill. Ji-Yoon might be the department head, but Bill Dobson is its moon. Joan adores him. Elliot respects him. Despite the fact that he’s perennially late to class, he’s revered by his students, like Dafna, who drives Bill to campus after he crashes an electric scooter (which he only takes after losing his car at the airport and crashing a golf cart — the pilot’s physical comedy comes fast and thick, especially for a series about the academe).
Critically, Ji-Yoon likes Bill. They share a breezy intimacy that carried no threat of metamorphosing into romance so long as he was happily married. Now that his wife’s gone, their repartee feels edgy. Where’s the line between wrestling your boss over a keychain and actual foreplay?
Joan understands incisively what’s suddenly uncomfortable between Ji-Yoon and Bill. It’s inexplicable to me how her classes are so dull when she’s such batty fun outside the lecture hall. After the dean fails to solve Joan’s office drama, Ji-Yoon initiates a Title IX report — it’s not like Elliot or the other man on Larson’s hit list were relegated to a “subterranean shithole.” In exchange, Ji-Yoon wants Joan to read her student evals, which she smugly declares she’s avoided for decades.
It takes The Chair less than 15 minutes to summarize a debate happening at universities nationwide as the price tag of higher education goes up. Joan doesn’t read her feedback because she doesn’t care if she’s “popular,” a dirty word she synonymizes with commercial appeal. But what if she dropped the consumerism framework that offends her? Joan’s indifferent to boosting sales, but she certainly wants students to love The Canterbury Tales, which she impedes by being a total snooze. She even chastises the Title IX intake officer for the length of her jorts, which, honestly, are really short. And there is snow on the ground. (What month is this? Is this a small liberal-arts college nestled into the peak of Mount Washington?)
Somehow, Ji-Yoon’s home life is proving as chaotic as Pembroke. Her father has a headshot of her dreamy ex (Daniel Dae Kim) hanging on the fridge. Her adopted daughter — captivatingly played by 7-year-old Everly Carganilla, so maybe she’s 7? I never know how old kids are supposed to be — has been referred to a psychologist for making a death threat against her teacher. Juju’s also going through an anti-mommy phase. In a scene that made me tear up, she asks Ji-Yoon if she’ll remember her when she dies, then tells her she doesn’t want to lie in bed together.
Just when it seems Ji-Yoon can’t make any headway, she gets through to Bill. Her lecture is equal parts eviscerating and effective: “The only reason you enroll high is because of your reputation,” presumably as the fading, devil-may-care author of the novel Evening’s Empire. When he eventually arrives to his afternoon section of “Death and Modernism,” he asks how many kids are drunk and/or high. Perhaps sensing Bill’s poised either to lose his shit or have a Dead Poets moment, students whip out their phones and press record. (Or maybe they’re always filming in the year 2021?) As an oratorical afterthought in distinguishing absurdism from fascism, Bill delivers a Sieg Heil salute. Is he a Nazi? No, he was making a joke. Was it a good joke? It was neither funny nor interesting.
The Chair is a workplace drama, and the university is an inherently political workplace. Already we’re implicitly debating the merits of tenure and the hegemony of the Western canon while simultaneously careening into a conversation about cancel culture. It’s a sick twist that a minority woman has finally made it to the top of this ivory tower just in time for it to fall. I loved Dr. Cristina Yang as I love Eve Polastri, but The Chair delights beyond the limitations of its erudite sliver of the world because Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon does. She can land a joke as she slides off a broken chair; she can make a clunker of a Harold Bloom quote feel unexpected. The study of literature is in decline, at Pembroke and, sadly, at less fictional places, but I genuinely think Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim can save it.