Photo credit: Lucas Viccellio/Netflix
It’s such a setup, and one of Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim’s colleagues knows it.
As Dr. Kim settles into her office as the first woman—the first woman of color, no less—to chair the English department at the fictional Pembroke University, a package awaits her. It is a nameplate for her desk which reads:
“Fucker in charge of you fucking fucks.”
This is how The Chair, releasing today on Netflix, begins your roller coaster ride at the fictional Pembroke University.
What could better describe being a higher ed administrator today? With Kim, Sandra Oh, an actress who has played dozens of roles (you may know her best as the borderline heartless and single-minded cardio-pulmonary surgeon Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy or the British MI6 agent Eve Polastri on Killing Eve), steps into the toughest job I know: being the incoming chair of a once-grand, Ph.D.-granting, humanities department.
Kim’s burdens include being the Korean-American single mother of a multi-racial child, none of whose races are Korean, and a father who refuses to speak English: listening to father and daughter argue in Korean, without subtitles, is a particularly deft touch. Kim has an overbearing, bean-counting dean who wants her to push three colleagues into retirement (one of whom seems to be in the early stages of dementia) and who has invited the actor David Duchovny to give the department’s annual distinguished lecture, a move without any intellectual justification and suggested by a trustee to make the department seem “relevant.” Kim is ordered to reverse declining enrollments, colleagues who refuse to see themselves as the culprits, and an incipient Title IX case.
Then there is racism, aimed less at Kim than at the brilliant young African-Americanist Yaz McKay, played by Nana Mensah, who is constantly told she is “the future of the department” and treated by her white colleagues like a teaching assistant. Kim is also charged with getting McKay through a tenure review that an older white male Americanist, and the Dean, seem determined to torpedo—while McKay silently swallows the racism that surrounds her.
The cast would not be complete without a popular, recently widowed, and socially out-of-control lefty white male colleague. This is Bill Dobson (played by Jay Duplass), who has a drinking problem, can’t make it to class on time, and seems mostly focused on reviving a past love affair with Kim. Dobson’s life is a train wreck, and students mostly excuse his erratic behavior because his moments of brilliance are worth it. But this too has its limits when Dobson throws an “ironic” Nazi salute during a lecture on Fascism. Recorded by a student, the video becomes a meme, triggering a cancel culture campaign.
Here, like the racism that Yaz Mckay copes with, the episode gathers momentum by how realistic Dobson’s swift fall from grace is. Believing that his connection to the students is authentic and his moral position on free speech so persuasive, Dobson suddenly learns that the culture has moved on without him. Against Kim’s advice (“Just apologize,” she pleads), Dobson convenes a town meeting about free speech and the intellectual importance of discomfort: framed as a conversation, the students know that it is really just another opportunity for him to lecture them. And for a minute or so, he really seems to have the students re-thinking their position—until he delivers the non-apology guaranteed to make everything worse. As I heard the words “I’m sorry if you feel that I….” I thought: uh-oh, here it comes.
The students, justifiably, explode.
But back to the set-up. Kim’s impossible role of herding all the departmental cats in her charge will resonate with any feminist in higher-ed. If an administrator has a dirty job that someone must do, they are likely to choose a woman—preferably a woman of color—to do it. So the bonus round is for the dean to tell Kim that her historic role as the first woman/woman of color to chair the department actually requires her to do the work no white person has the courage or the will to do.
This, we also know, is a feature of university racism so thoroughly embedded in the oxymoronic phrase “faculty of color.” A scholar’s body and knowledge are constantly hailed as special and historical and become a tacit, unspoken reason to relieve white people of any responsibility for embracing intellectual change. She becomes, in other words, a repository for critical tasks that white people not so secretly believe to be shit work.
In Kim’s case, this includes diversifying the department and its curriculum, a task which the dean (this too is familiar) claims cannot possibly happen until Kim persuades three white faculty least popular with students to surrender their tenured lines. However, the dean has already made an instructive start. Professor Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) barges into Kim’s office to announce that, without any notice, her own office has been moved to a basement under a student weight room that has no Wi-Fi.
Later, having been asked gently by Kim to read her teaching evaluations for the first time in decades, Hambling can make it through only several devastating student reviews before deciding to burn them instead. In the process, she sets her office on fire. In my house, we could not decide whether this—or Hambling’s encounter with the scantily-clad twenty-something Title IX administrator about why she has worn Daisy Dukes to an office charged with adjudicating sexual harassment—was funnier. There is also a budding alliance with an IT specialist, which I anticipate will end with him hacking into the notorious (with faculty, at least) Rate My Professors website to fabricate an alternative set of glowing student reviews.
I only had access to the first three episodes of this six-part mini-series, so I can’t tell you how they will resolve these problems in another 90 minutes. Nevertheless, I liked what I saw, partly because it is adept at portraying today’s intractable campus conflicts in shorthand.
But it’s also hard to know the audience for this show and whether it will be back: I suspect not. “Academics” aren’t exactly a demographic that will support a miniseries about faculty politics. It also isn’t clear that—aside from endless kibitzing about political correctness and the high cost of attendance—the rest of the public is in the least interested in 90% of what faculty and university administrators do with their time.
Notably, there hasn’t been a TV series set on a college campus since CBS’s The Education of Max Bickford, starring Richard Dreyfuss as the chair of American studies, which lasted 22 episodes in the 2001-2002 season and featured the far less cartoonish (and at the time, more transgressive and interesting) subplot of Dreyfuss’s best male friend becoming his best woman friend while he was away on sabbatical. It didn’t get traction. The network dropped it in favor of a show where white people with mundane life issues were visited by an African-American angel who helped them solve their problems.
But give The Chair a chance! If you do, maybe it will come back. At my house, we thought it was funny and watched the three review episodes we had in one sitting. If the difficult contemporary issues the show raises end up being a little oversimplified given the brevity that 30-minute episodes require, each problem that end’s up in Kim’s portfolio is presented in all its complexity. In total, it’s about three hours of television: you could binge-watch it over the weekend and tell me what you think in the comments section below.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).