Sandra Oh Brings High Intelligence to the Sharp Laughs of ‘The Chair’

The world of higher education is sold as the arena where the mind is expanded, one gains knowledge of the world, and a better-paying job awaits after all the enslaving course load. In reality to actually work inside the halls of academia means entering a terrain as politically vicious as Washington, D.C. or Wall Street. Netflix’s “The Chair” is set in the world of a lower-tier Ivy League university where the humanities are being gutted, celebrity guests are seen as life lines, and the veteran professors find it hard to adjust to a shifting culture. Sandra Oh is pure charm in this series, which has a short first season of six episodes. She brings the brains you would expect in a department chair, but the uncertainty as well that comes with all the stress of being in charge of any undertaking.

Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Oh) is the new English Department Chair of Pembroke College, one of those enticing campuses surrounded by pine and snowy winters. It’s not a smooth transition for Ji-Yoon since the first order of business, as instructed by Dean Paul Larson (David Morse), is to start considering veteran faculty to trim. Funding for the English Department is already under threat, since enrollment is so low. Tenured professors, who have been there for decades, like Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), represent an old white standard unappealing to a generation of students who are increasingly diverse and woke. The one professor who remains popular is Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), author of a bestseller who still carries a rebellious presence. He’s also depressed from being a widower and sending his daughter off to college somewhere else. For Ji-Yoon the future is definitely personified by Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), who is both a Black woman and a non-tenured professor who instantly connects with students. When Ji-Yoon recommends Yaz to give a highly coveted lecture, Larson prefers they get a celebrity. A public crisis erupts when Bill is filmed giving a Nazi salute in class, while trying to make a point. It’s another battle to wage as Ji-Yoon also deals with her rambunctious adoptive daughter, Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), and lingering feelings from a past liaison with Bill. 

Created by actor Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, “The Chair” first works as a dramedy where its world is so vividly constructed, that by the end of the season one could easily take a stroll down Pembroke without a guide. The university becomes an intellectual microcosm for all of the culture clashes and generational shifts we’re now experiencing. Typical college-themed shows nearly always focus on the students as the main characters. Here we’re knee-deep in the world of the professors and administrators. The students are still learning about life, the professors have already lived it, so now they’re stuck in endless battles. Landscapes are shifting, which the casting is keen to capture. A Korean-American is the chair of the English Department, but that also means she has to deal with the fact that in a culture of less reading and intellectual rigor, the humanities are quickly dissipating. It’s not always the students’ fault. Bob Balaban’s Rentz, regal and reserved, is the campus scholar on Herman Melville, but he scoffs at Yaz’s approach to teaching “Moby Dick” with feminist angles, Critical Race Theory language or allowing the students to do interactive projects. There can be little doubt Rentz is influenced by the late literary critic Harold Bloom, not only in mannerisms, but in how Bloom engaged in just such clashes with the emerging feminist, identity politics approach to literature late in his life.

These days, campus politics can be a game of walking on eggshells. Bill gets reprimanded by Ji-Yoon for being a no-show in his classes or just phoning it in (typical with star professors at major universities), so he decides to give a sincere, passionate lecture on Camus, Sartre and existential philosophy after World War II. When does a Nazi salute to make an ironic point, the students instantly capture it on their iPhones. The predictable results are protests on campus, Bill trying to have a public discussion on the incident that suddenly spirals downward, and Ji-Yoon trying to maneuver a way to keep it from getting worse. On top of that, Larson wants her to shove Yaz aside for a major lecture in exchange for David Duchovny. “The X-Files” star has a few bestselling novels, and does indeed boast degrees from Yale and Princeton, but does that make him worthy of being taken seriously as a scholarly invite? In a world where “institutes of higher learning” depend on famous names like James Franco to attract naïve young minds, most certainly. Duchovny himself has a great guest appearance, first at a lavish home where Ji-Yoon goes to meet the actor and hear about his plans to file for a PHD with his 30-year-old thesis paper. 

“The Chair” isn’t all academics. Sandra Oh is allowed to shine in both the cerebral brawls and moments of personal, darkly funny drama. Her adoptive daughter, Ju-Hee, is disturbing teachers with her graphic drawings and precocious streak. Even Bill looks slightly perturbed at how Ju-Hee cheerfully looks at photography books with graphic moments. She’s also ethnically Latino and a Day of the Dead project provokes her into lashing at Ji-Yoon for not having any connection to her cultural roots. Ji-Yoon’s Korean father is like a serene island, even when he makes vicious quips in Korean about Bill. Per dad, Ji-Yoon should have married a good Korean man and lived in a better city. Speaking about Bill, he is both one of the show’s more cliché and vague characters, yet excellently played by Jay Duplass as a misfit who knows he’s smart, but can’t help himself acting out of impulse. He still has feelings for Ji-Yoon, which he makes plain to her, but she’s quite distracted by campus politics, or the complications of getting involved with a colleague now working under her. There is also a story angle underdeveloped, perhaps because it might offer more next season, of a young student smitten with Bill, who leaves cakes outside his door. Bill nearly defines why certain students with intelligence covet being a professor. With tenure you have job security for life and can just lounge around and spout what you know. Or so it seems, as “The Chair” makes clear, even tenure isn’t as bulletproof anymore.

Short but highly enjoyable, “The Chair” announces itself a show to keep track of. Sandra Oh delivers some of her best work. She is allowed to flourish outside of cliché genre conventions, and has to play a personality that lives in the mind while grappling with all the hassles of real-world politicking. The writing turns the halls of academia into a battle of wills, where how you teach “Moby Dick” becomes more about why Melville chose a white whale. Now we are all debating what the novel says about the role of women in 19th century America, or if the whale represents white supremacy (a point a student offers to Yaz). The cast is wonderfully diverse, because the colleges are indeed becoming more complex patchworks of America. What doesn’t change is the nature of commerce and bureaucracies. Even the teachers end up becoming another brick in the wall.

The Chair” season one begins streaming Aug. 20 on Netflix.