Name a social setting more fraught than the workplace party. The problems are several, starting with the oxymoron. But when the workplace is the stratified world of the academy, it can be a stretch to even call the setting “social.” For untenured professors, parties are beauty pageants. Your publications are your swimwear; your schmoozing is your talent; it wouldn’t be unhelpful to prep an answer to the question, “What will you do if you win this title?”
If you’re tenured, like Bill, the stakes are lower. That’s partly why he can perform a Sieg Heil salute in class and not give it a second thought, even as the moment gets meme-ified on Instagram. When “The Faculty Party” opens, Dafna’s leaving Bill a peach pie, along with a note quoting the exact line from “Prufrock” you’re already thinking of: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” It’s a callback to their previous conversation, which she’s replayed a thousand times, I’d bet. That Bill brings the pie to the titular faculty party with the suggestive note still attached shouldn’t surprise. This guy stopped being careful years ago.
The party is of the stand-and-chat variety. Small groups huddle and wait for new constellations to form and worry about what they’ll say to smooth the transitions (or maybe I’m projecting). Ji-Yoon is running late after Ju Ju drives away the babysitter by asking to see her vagina fur — she does this on purpose, right? She drops her kid at her father’s house despite his protests that they don’t share a language, but, personally, I’m not sure that doesn’t make him uniquely qualified. Ju Ju is a handful in English.
By the time Ji-Yoon arrives, Joan is delightfully hammered, draping herself over Bill and lamenting her bookish youth. Yaz is cautious, initially afraid to even be seen with a glass of wine by any of her colleagues-cum-evaluators. She catches Elliot while he’s discussing Old People Things — namely, his recent colonoscopy — but they bridge the generational divide with their shared love of the archives. The scene calls to mind the stilted “Can I borrow him for a second?” formula of The Bachelor; Yaz has 60 seconds to forge a meaningful connection with Elliot before the next contestant swoops in. Still, it’s Elliot’s astonishment at their overlapping tastes that’s telling. Let’s set aside the merit of the tenure system for a moment — there has to be a better way to decide who gets it.
The only person having fun at this shindig is Bill, who escapes Joan’s clutches to hotbox the conservatory. When Ji-Yoon finds him, he low-key negs her about her makeup. But if negging is the game, she’s the far better player. Ji-Yoon mocks his beard and his sports coat and his spliff. It’s “disaffected middle-age white male professor cliché” bingo, and he’s the winning card. I wish we knew how long Sharon’s been gone, how reasonable it is for him to be this flirty, and how reasonable it would be to trust him. Chemically emboldened and a little daffy from the weed, Ji-Yoon makes the unauthorized announcement that the department’s Distinguished Lectureship will go to Yaz this year. Your move, Dean Larson. (His move is to mispronounce her name.)
Before she can deal with the fallout, Ji-Yoon rushes off, forgetting her phone in the hurry. That’s why she misses the texts from Lila, Bill’s TA, about the Nazi rumors circulating around campus as the department pecks itself to death over crudités. Bill’s offense appears to be ripped from the headlines. Earlier this year, a UPenn professor gave a Hitler salute after being cut off by a moderator at a virtual conference. Bad news for Bill fans: Within a month, that guy opted for retirement.
It’s probably best that Ji-Yoon doesn’t know about the controversy yet; she has to find a runaway Ju Ju, who fled her habi’s house because she wanted her Hello Kitty doll. “You’re not my real mom,” she barks when they find her safe on the side of the road, an echo of something a mean girl at school said first. Bill cuts the tension with the promise of fried chicken, which somehow leads to cosmic bowling. This night has levels. He’s a borderline man-child, but it’s becoming more apparent how he could fit into this would-be family. Ji-Yoon is obsessive about her career; Bill represents the tempering influence of someone who’s already made it, who can tell her when it’s okay to lay off the gas. When Ji-Yoon tailspins on the drive home — she’s too old, she’s not married, she’s the wrong choice to mother a Mexican daughter — Bill sweetly bolsters her. Maybe Ju Ju’s birth mother could see past all that to the strong, single mom Ji-Yoon would be.
Parked cars emit such pure make-out energy, even with a child passed out in the back seat. There’s the elbows brushing on the armrest, the hands grazing, the recycled hot air. Even the car rolling across Bill’s toes doesn’t totally put out the flame. Physically hobbled and installed on his sofa, he makes another move, and who can blame him? She has the most incredible hair. Ji-Yoon throws out scattershot justifications for why it’s a Bad Idea: He’s high, he’s mourning, it’s too soon, it would damage her reputation. All are compelling; none are convincing.
Still, instead of her hung-over colleague, she goes to bed with a pile of books. She looks happy when she wakes up, putting together a cute outfit and brushing her teeth with little Juju. Maybe it’s not self-preservation at all that has her rejecting Bill; maybe she genuinely doesn’t want to be with him. When she gets to the office, though, he barges in to renew the case he’d be an asset to the women Kim; before he can finish, sadly, he proves a liability to his overburdened department head. “Professor Hitler must go,” students are chanting on the quad below Ji-Yoon’s window, along with signs — “I can’t believe I am still protesting Nazis” — and a megaphone.
The mood is officially dead.