Netflix’s “The Chair”: A telling farce about the academic workplace

A lot of the buzz surrounding “The Chair,” Netflix’s new short “dramedy” series about academic life, centers on whether it’s a realistic depiction of working in higher education. My answer? Not really, but sort of. Overall, it’s a telling and entertaining farce that yields truths about modern academe, especially the world of elite colleges.

The gifted Sandra Oh plays the first woman of color to serve as chair of the English department at a fictitious, Ivy League-type university. Soon after assuming her new post, she is embroiled in politically-charged allegations of misconduct by a professorial colleague and close friend. Of course, the situation is precipitated by a student social media posting that goes viral. The unfolding mess (i.e., when “cluster” is only half a word) becomes the dominant storyline of the series.

Although Oh is the glue that holds “The Chair” together, she is joined by an excellent ensemble cast. Two scene stealers are Holland Taylor as an eccentric, sharp-tongued senior professor whom the university is trying to push out, and Everly Carganilla as Oh’s precocious and attitudinal young daughter. Although the show mimics the white male hierarchies of many universities, the women are by far its strongest and most interesting characters.

The exaggerated behaviors of faculty and administration highlight the show’s farcical qualities. “The Chair” illustrates with exclamation marks topics such as academic freedom and tenure, diversity and identity (especially race, gender, and age), career arcs and ambitions, substance use, student-faculty relations, institutional governance, and academic administration. Neither professors nor senior administrators play heroic roles. They operate in, and contribute to, a self-absorbed bubble. They also curse a lot, tossing f-bombs with regularity.

As for the undergraduates, on the surface, they’re multi-talented, ambitious, politically correct, and very earnest. At times, one might be tempted to tag them as the adults in the room, at least compared to their over-the-top faculty mentors. However, only by stepping back and asking, “but what are they soooo earnest about?,” does one understand how a blend of superstar ability, privileged sense of self-importance, and lack of life experience can produce absurdly blown-up responses to matters calling for common sense and genuine dialogue.

“The Chair” throws lots of barbs at academic culture and academic people during its six 30-minute episodes. Those who are not familiar with the pathologies of university life may miss some of the finer points. Nevertheless, the series also works as a take on venerable workplaces grounded in pomp and dysfunction. 

As an academic, I alternately enjoyed and winced at “The Chair.” There’s talk of a season two. If it comes to pass, I’m now curious enough about this neurotic bunch of on-screen colleagues to watch what happens next.

9 responses

  1. What a well-written review. I have not watched the show, but did work within higher ed for many years, though it was in student services vs. academia. Not the same but within viewing and hearing distance, so to speak. The one sentence I really appreciate, with a wide smile, is this:

    “However, only by stepping back and asking, “but what are they soooo earnest about?,” does one understand how a blend of superstar ability, privileged sense of self-importance, and lack of life experience can produce absurdly blown-up responses to matters calling for common sense and genuine dialogue.”

    How that HIT the nail on the head of what can take place – in many workplaces too. I’m thinking of new administrators – in particular – who get the job for reasons other than having proven leadership skills. And, too often, no one is around to help them get a better clue as they are being used by others to further their own agendas. Don’t mean to be cynical, but anyone who has endured this knows what I mean.

    Anyway, the review was enjoyable to read. Thank you.

  2. I’m to episode 2. It’s entertaining but there’s something wrong when the series says its about a POC as department chair but the writers are actually enamored with the drunken charmer. (There’s a quote somewhere about how charmers always charm for a purpose.) It’s a farce because 95 percent of faculty members are like Oh’s character, juggling work and family.

      • Hi David, We finished watching the series. The trajectory of the show really was about the badboy novelist Bill Dobson, not Ji-Yoon Kim. His realization drives the show (he uses his dead wife an an excuse not to straighten up), not Ji-Yoon Kim, who realizes that she can’t play the political academic game. I would add that when Ji-Yoon chastises Bill for using his dead wife as an excuse, she may well have been talking to the writers. Using dead wives as sympathetic devices may be just a bit overdone these days (After Life, Longmire, etc.) I think this device and his connection to the child are designed to create sympathy for Dobson’s character, but except for an occasional nice quip, I didn’t care for him at all. Ji-Yoon should have given him the speech in the first five minutes of the series.

  3. From the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill! What an honor! As Mr Yamada reference in his article, the spotlight placed on faculty speech probably made many of us educators squirm. We do have to duty to make our students feel “safe” in our classrooms. At the same time, there is something mob-like (a la the French Revolution) in the students’ condemnations of their instructor over a body-language display meant to warn about fascism, not sympathize with it. It’s not clear what the student population wants, beyond a human sacrifice to placate a sense of historical outrage. It reminded me of Rene Girard’s description of the Scapegoat Mechanism, which begins with simple human envy of another. The students are unwilling to consider or accept that their professor shares their views towards fascism. The simplicity with which his classroom antics were converted into an antithetical meme is where all our concern should be directed. Others should not be able to define us so easily, especially when others seem so intent on misdefining us for the purpose of inciting mischief.

  4. Wow, David, I think you could have a second career as a media reviewer should you ever want to segue! Beautifully written, right-on review!

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