Sandra Oh brings her comedic talents to Netflix, starring as a barrier-breaking college professor in the charming new dramedy The Chair.
The Chair, like many other Sandra Oh projects, finds its niche in the stories of strong female characters with talents for breaking glass ceilings. While lacking the nail-biting drama of her previous roles in Grey’s Anatomy or Killing Eve, The Chair makes up in its touching cleverness and charm. This perfect blend of drama and comedy is Sandra Oh’s bread and butter.
The Chair transports viewers to the ghost town of nearly obsolete Pembroke University, a humanities college rooted in tradition but also teetering on the verge of collapse. The modern move to tech and STEM as the money-making careers has left Pembroke with slashed enrollment and catastrophic budget cuts. As Ji-Yoon Kim steps into her new office as English Department Chair, she relishes her achievement of having ascended the ranks of her profession. When her office chair breaks from underneath her, the daydream is quickly ruined, symbolizing the challenges to come. She soon realizes that maybe that glass ceiling was a comfortable and necessary barrier. Kim’s first task as chair is convincing some of her elderly colleagues to consider retirement to save money for the university. This job proves complicated when these professors resist 21-century changes. Although those challenges are introduced with hints of comedy and witty banter from the characters, it makes them no less difficult for Ji-Yoon to deal with. As she comes home from her new position to a modest-sized home and an ornery adopted daughter with an affinity for boundary-crossing, we’re allowed to see multiple sides of Ji-Yoon and what she prioritizes in life as a successful woman and a single mother.
We’re soon introduced to Professor William Dobson or Bill to his friends and colleagues. In his first scene, Bill is escorting his daughter, whom he affectionately refers to as ‘Doodles,’ through the airport as she departs for college. However, the warm sentiment is interrupted when she bluntly tells Bill to “get his shit together,”; an order expressed by every one of Bill’s friends. Bill, the wounded, messy, and heartbroken basket case had lost his wife and was left in shambles. As Bill drinks himself into a stupor, misses lectures, and accidentally broadcasts explicit content to his students, we see that Bill’s behavior is a direct obstacle to Ji-Yoon’s tenure as chair.
Ji Yoon, an obvious bleeding heart, has an awkward flirtation-based friendship with Bill. However, romantically, she doesn’t stand a chance against the memory of Bill’s deceased wife. It seems that the two a heading for a disastrous culmination of all their hidden feelings. They’re almost doomed from the start. However, it does not escape me that most of Bill’s best moments involve Ji-Yoon. His goodness is introduced in small doses and is usually used to combat his screw-ups, but these moments cause Bill to toe the line between lost cause and lost soul in need of saving. As Ji-Yoon would say, Bill has now mastered the “disaffected middle-aged white male-professor cliche.”
The show’s first conflict comes on the heels of a hungover lecture Bill had given where he jokingly gives a Nazi salute. He’s soon meme-ed into Internet stardom, enraging the student body and putting the university in further danger. The show is making an obvious comparison to modern-day “cancel culture” on college campuses, almost to the point of satire. Bill, however distasteful or ignorant he may be in his analogies, is not a bigot. His stubbornness and inability to take things seriously lead him into more considerable trouble. The show makes sure not to dismiss the student body’s concerns in a simple resolution but does buy into the cheap cliché of mob mentality associated with “cancel culture.” Whether that works to the benefit of the show or its detriment is yet to be seen.
The Chair places diversity, or lack thereof, as a central theme of the first few episodes. Viewers can speculate that Ji-Yoon’s appointment as Chair was political maneuvering, hopeful that a woman of color would attract more young students that value diversity to Pembroke. Also, while Ji-Yoon outright expresses the need for more women of color in Pembroke, viewers are left wanting more of Yaz (Nana Mensah) and Lila (Mallory Low), as Ph.D. candidate Lila is collateral damage to Bill’s mistakes, Yaz is used as a pawn to either piss off or satisfy the dean.
Overall, The Chair is well-intentioned, with enough drama and witty banter to evoke a few laughs, making it prime Netflix binge material.