“The Chair” on Netflix: A Disappointment

I got a sneak preview to watch “The Chair” before it was officially available on Netflix (I guess I am cool enough to have had an ‘in’!) and the premise had really piqued my curiosity: a Korean-American professor is hired to be the chair of a flailing English department which is very much old guard, white male except for one black woman professor and one much older white woman professor. However, I was only able to watch one episode and part of a second before deciding to call it quits. I simply found the show very implausible and cliché-ridden.

What is novel is that the protagonist is an Asian-American woman who is an academic played by the talented Sandra Oh, and we see her speak Korean with her father–it is a rarity on screen to see anyone speaking a native tongue that isn’t Spanish. However, that seems to be one of the only things that really works for me in the show. Pembroke University, where his hired is presumably a top-tier one; sorry for the cultural arrogance, but we don’t see any Indian students in the classroom, which is completely unbelievable.

Also hugely inaccurate is the fact that the English department is all old white male, with the exception of a young black woman and an older white woman (excellently acted by Holland Taylor). No English department since the 70s has had all old white men who teach only Dead White Men; I grew up in a small Midwest college town and even there, the white men were teaching diverse writers and not all the faculty were white. This was what really killed it for me and made the show more of a caricature. This is not to say that there aren’t dinosaurs in departments and a lack of diversity in some (I left a terrible graduate program for this very reason). The one younger white male we see is again a cliché–Professor Dobson is the drunken, reasonably attractive man who is a little too close to his female students and can’t get his act together. English departments have been in the forefront of social progressiveness in the past few decades, both in terms of curriculum and faculty, incorporating multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ writers, and leftist politics. 

Also problematic is the tone, which seems to hover uneasily between comedy and drama. We have moments of tremendous humor, such as when Holland Taylor’s Professor Hambling comments on an employee’s vulgar, scanty clothing, and then moments of seriousness, such as when Professor Kim is saddled with the task of conveying to the old guard that their classes have declining enrollments. There is no subtlety; things are either screwball, slapdash comical, or darkly true. Everything seems pasted together, every trope and issue in an English department or academia thrown together for a half-hour episode.

Perhaps a piece of my disdain is because I have struggled so long for academia to be seen as more than the clichés of professors having affairs or old white men, and have written a story collection with a more accurate depiction of academia and the emotional dilemmas that go on in a cast of diverse characters. I also worked at the English department at Stanford University after college, so I have insider knowledge of how things work. But beyond that, I just found “The Chair” to be rather a mess, which is sad because it really had so much potential. It was really exciting to see that there was going to be a series with an Asian-American woman as the lead, and who knows, maybe the writers and creators will do what is necessary in the field of English: revise.

2 thoughts on ““The Chair” on Netflix: A Disappointment

  1. Perhaps I watched the first episode from a different perspective from yours, but I actually enjoyed the first episode so much—perhaps because I have never been satisfied with any movie made about teachers, professors, colleges, and schools. That is, I don’t think film can ever convey what it really feels like to be an instructor or professor—just as films can hardly convey the experience of being a writer. Such films are grossly over sentimental—especially popular ones like Dead Poet’s Society.

    At any rate, the first episode of The Chair made me laugh harder than I have done so in a long time—partially because I was expecting cliché after cliché. Instead I experienced some of the most comical scenes, like the one where Professor Dobson arrives to school both late and hung over. (This reminds me of a tenured English professor at Sacramento State University, who was quite popular but was a cokehead. His behavior was quite erratic and unpredictable.) Then there’s that scene with the chair’s daughter Ju-Hee, who performs some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen, like the one where she walks into the bathroom of her babysitter. If anything, I plan to continue with this series, if only to watch this incredibly talented and funny girl.

    As a former student who once revered his English professors, I found it refreshing to see these professors portrayed with warts and all. But on a more important point, what this first episode does convey well is how English departments across the county are dying—as most students want to major in more lucrative careers than those in the humanities. For example, more students at Stanford are now majoring in computer science than any other major. I was shocked to learn this, but it makes sense as students must pay back their student loans. I even had one advisor who recommended that I not pursue a PhD in English for two reasons: (1) she knew of too many PhDs in the humanities who were unemployed, and (2) those who were working as professors rarely were getting tenure as they had in the past. I think my advisor was quite right—in fact—if I were to go back in time, I would not major in English but in a more marketable degree such as clinical psychology. Of course, my experience would probably have been far less fulfilling.

    • So well said, Todd, and very spot-on observations! It is tragic About what is happening with English departments indeed; English was my second area of study at Stanford, and even when I was in college, but was regarded as a bit frivolous compared to professional careers.

      The acting is indeed fantastic, and what you say is true–film or TV cannot convey accurately or adequately what happens in the classroom and as an instructor. So perhaps one way of conveying that is through comedy, as with this show. I seem to be the only person of the couple people who have watched it that didn’t like it, so maybe I’m the odd one out! Thank you so much for your comments!

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