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.