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.