A Review of Television Series The Chair
Program Creators: Amanda Peet, Anna Julia Wyman
The Chair is a new, six-episode television, series that premiered on August 20 from Netflix that hits a home run in its telling of the reality facing educators today. That reality is the gulf that psychologically separates older and younger people.
After viewing the first three episodes of the show, I am amazed at the quality of the writing. I would love to be a fly on the wall of that writers’ room, listening to the back-and-forth as they craft each episode. The actors shine as well, but their brilliance is essentially a reflection of the light these writers cast.
The story centers around a 46-year-old woman professor at the fictional Pembroke University, a doctoral-granting institution, who has been elected to chair the English Department, the first woman to achieve that distinction in the school’s history. The school itself is in the throes of enrollment declines with concomitant reductions in funds. The new chair’s dean wishes her to help by reducing the head count in her department by three positions. He has prepared a document that he shares with her that lists all the faculty, along with their average head count per class, singling out the three least popular professors for her consideration.
As portrayed by Sandra Oh, the chair is an empathic and nurturing sort who is loath to take such action. She now heads a department of mostly aging white professors set in their ways whose classes are increasingly unable to draw student enrollment, while the handful of younger professors, including an exceptionally accomplished Black woman (Nana Mensah as Professor McKay), have no problem filling their classrooms with eager students. Complicating things is an additional plot line involving a recently widowered professor who has been enormously popular with students.
The pervasive force of social media changes all that, as a video taken of him parodying Nazism in a class session hits social media platforms without context and ends up inciting a huge protest movement by students who believe some things should never even be mentioned. Period. This is political correctness meets cancel culture, something that actor Duplass personally witnessed when fellow cast member Jeffrey Tambor was fired from Transparent after being accused of sexual assault.
The show is in the comedy category and has funny moments, to be sure. But each 30-minute episode depicts the very serious issues that are having such a divisive impact on our society. It strikes me that once the series is launched, it should be the focus of some serious viewer research.
The cast is headed by Sandra Oh as the chair, breaking ground by not only being a woman but a woman of color. She is a bilingual Korean American single mom with an adopted Hispanic daughter (played by Everly Carganilla) who seems to be as intellectually formidable as any of the adults. Her life is being complicated by what I would call, borrowing a phrase from Lemony Snicket, a series of unfortunate events. One wonders how much she can take before going postal.
During the first three episodes, excellent performances are turned in by Jay Duplass as the problematic Professor Dobson, Bob Balaban is brilliant as recalcitrant Professor Rentz, David Morse inhabits the role of Dean Larson, and Holland Taylor portrays the elderly and much beset-upon Professor Hambling. The primary student body roles are performed by Mallory Low, Ella Rubin, and Jordan Tyson, all of whom are entirely credible and effective.
The series was filmed in early 2021 at Chatham University and the University of Pittsburg. There are six executive producers, including Ms. Oh and head writer/showrunner Amanda Peet. David Benioff, Bernadette Caulfield, Daniel Gray Longino, and D.B. Weiss complete the EP roster.
I don’t know who the contributing experts were, but they certainly did outstanding work in providing deliciously real details for the writers to enhance and dramatize. The Chair is a show well worth watching.