Review: On Netflix, ‘The Chair’ and Sandra Oh offer a tricky seminar in academic cancel culture

·4 min read

Satire is everywhere and nowhere right now. It’s the thing so many series and movies tiptoe near, without getting their hands and stories around.

“The White Lotus” isn’t really satire; it’s a methodical dark comedy doling out one or two character traits per character, operating with the mechanics of a whodunit and a whogotkilled full of tidy reversals of fortune. The new “Candyman,” of all things, actually sneaks in more stealth satire in its tone and details than “The White Lotus,” in its depiction of a soul-sucking contemporary art scene and one Black couple’s unfortunate career paths within it. (No wonder the horror audience is likely to reject it wholesale.)

Now: Netflix’s “The Chair.” Is this enjoyable, often witty, more often massively conflicted six-episode series worth seeing?

It is, yes, for Sandra Oh (allow me to be the first to say she’s terrific) and for many choice character details. Is it satire? Plenty have labeled it as such, but the label doesn’t stick. It’s satire-adjacent, a brittle comedy of manners edging by definition toward satire without really getting there, or trying. It’s primarily a workplace rom-com full of fairly calculated heart. I like it because the wry comic elements are so secure in the grip of its sterling ensemble. But I like it in spite of its own slippery avoidance of the issues at stake: cash-strapped, hidebound academia; hair-trigger cancel culture, depicted as a conservative nightmare in liberal’s clothing; and These Kids Today.

The student herd, to be sure, isn’t the story in “The Chair.” (This review contains some spoilers.) Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon Kim, is the newly appointed English department head at fictional Pembroke College, a “lower-tier Ivy” institution somewhere in Massachusetts. She’s surrounded by tenured, coddled experts on Chaucer (Holland Taylor is wonderful as the salty veteran consigned to a basement office) and Melville (Bob Balaban, equally droll).

The younger generation doesn’t have a chance. “You are going to be the first tenured Black woman in this department,” Ji-Yoon tells the hope for the future, Yaz, played by Nana Mensah. “That’s why I’m leaving,” she says.

At the story’s center, there’s a sympathetic middle-aged white male whose passivity and privilege have finally caught up with him. Jay Duplass plays Bill, the onetime hotshot professor and, for a year now, widower, lately giving in to serious benders and missed lectures. He’s sweet on his longtime colleague Ji-Yoon and loves her daughter no less. In the first episode, he’s caught on cellphone video executing a fast Sieg Heil salute while discussing fascism and absurdism.

“The Chair” martyrs him, instantly. As the students’ “get rid of the Nazi!” protests gather steam, Ji-Yoon wonders: Go to bat for him? Don’t? But he loves my difficult, charming preteen daughter! Soon enough the beleaguered department chair becomes another misunderstood cancel-culture target.

Created and, in part, written by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, “The Chair” sits closer on the shelf ideologically to David Mamet’s fiercely paranoiac play “Oleanna” (moral: angry progressive female students will bring you DOWN) than Peet and Wyman may have intended. If director Daniel Gray Longino had handled the crucial Nazi salute bit more ambiguously, or just let Bill flail a few seconds more in his hungover state, there’d be some debate about how badly he’s misinterpreted.

It’s an odd fumble, because visual comedy is one of the strengths of the series, from the moment Oh takes a beautifully timed fall off her new perch. There’s serious satisfaction in watching Oh, Taylor, Balaban, David Morse (as the masterfully inscrutable dean) and others go to town with this material. It’s the audience pandering that limits “The Chair,” whether it’s another cute needle drop on the soundtrack, an eye-rolling warm-fuzzy montage for the family unit in the making, or the way the academic crises are resolved with a wave of the hand.

Duplass is the only miscast actor here: His slightly smug diffidence doesn’t give Oh and company much to work with, and the sexual tension at the clenched heart of “The Chair” is more theoretical and palpable. Oh keeps it on the rails. Quick, throwaway scenes such as Ji-Yoon walking, nervously, on campus while leaving a phone message for her messed-up, martyred colleague, become micro-seminars in timing. I’d take her class anytime. It’s no “Dear White People,” but “The Chair” will do.

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‘THE CHAIR’

3 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA (language, some nudity)

Running time: Six episodes, approximately 3.5 hours total

Where to watch: All episodes now streaming on Netflix

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