In The Chair, student protests and cutthroat administrators present the same threat-level to English departments. Thats unfair.
In The Chair, student protests and cutthroat administrators present the same threat-level to English departments. That's unfair. ELIZA MORSE / NETFLIX © 2021

Some force cursed blessed The Stranger with two former college English instructors, and so our affinities led us to watch Netflix's The Chair, a new comedy/drama about the state of the humanities.

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We both express mixed feelings about the series in general, but Mudede focuses on the soundtrack and on the way the show treats students while Rich focuses on structural issues and performance.

At Pembroke, the Students Are as Bad as the Administrators. That Ain't Right.

I very much wanted to like The Chair. I, too, taught in an English department long ago. I taught things like postcolonial theory and, yes, postmodernism. I wanted to finally connect with a TV series on a streaming service, but this did not happen for one main reason: The Chair gives absolutely nothing to its students. As a consequence, the English department of the fictional Pembroke University is fighting two fronts.

The first fight lies with the kind of neoliberal administrators that Bill Readings described in his 1997 book, The University in Ruins: cut costs, attract more students, retire under-performing professors, and so on.

The second fight lies with students who are either too woke or crassly ambitious. And so we have young people protesting something that is, according to the show's writers, stupid, or else trying to push long and dumb novels on their famous creative writing professors. What this means is that students are as bad as administrators, according to the English department's view of things. This assessment is deeply unfair, considering the amount of debt that's piled on students. They have to pay an obscene amount of money to attend a Pembroke University, and all they get in return is a bunch of grumpy professors and greedy administrators.

Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the new chair of Pembroke's English department, is tasked with somehow making all of this work. She must make administrators happy, appease students, and represent a department that's mostly filled with old white professors. As for the two young professors under Kim, one is an obnoxious white man, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), who places a naively high value on the freedom of thought; and the other is a Black woman, Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), whose classes are depicted as being more like a talent show than an actual place of learning. The latter's teaching methods speak to the students, which is a bad sign in this show because its students are either clueless or self-centered. One wants to be a popular teacher in a show that gives its students more depth and agency.

My last point concerns The Chair's soundtrack. It seems a bit dated, with bands like Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, and Le Tigre. Is this the kind of music college students are listening to today? Indie-rock from the late aughts? Or even indie rock in general? What about rap or trap? No Lizzo? Not even Kendrick Lamar? Nothing even like that?

If such is the case, then how are the students of this university woke enough to be alarmed by a professor's Nazi salute? Speaking of Nazis, the The Chair's soundtrack even includes a tune by The Smiths, "Cemetery Gates". If this music speaks to the student experience of Pembroke, then why is it so easy for them to cancel a white professor for basically being obnoxious in class and not to cancel the brazenly racist Morrissey on their soundtrack? The answer is simple. The music also hates the students. CHARLES MUDEDE

Strangely Strong Slapstick

As in all things, Sandra Oh is so good in this.
As in all things, Sandra Oh is so good in this. ELIZA MORSE / NETFLIX © 2021

As a piece of consumable culture for someone with a humanities degree, The Chair is kettle corn. The dramas pile up a little, but they never feel too heavy, thanks in part to a minor but consistent undercurrent of strangely strong slapstick comedy, which offsets the potentially musty subject of academia.

The very first joke is slapstick, with Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) falling out of her chair like a cartoon. The moment condenses and foreshadows the entire plot in a single pratfall right at the beginning of the series. In class, creative writing teachers often point out that great novelists often tell the whole story in the opening paragraph of their novels. While I doubt the writers and producers had that device in mind when they created the title scene, I'd like to think they did! Other notable slapstick moments include Holland Taylor's slips and falls (Taylor plays Professor Joan Hambling, an older woman who thinks #MeToo has gone too far but who remains a target of overt sexism), and her wild attempt to simply throw a frisbee. Director Daniel Gray Longino pulled lots of great physical acting out of the cast in general, which surprised me given the subject.

On the subject: the show’s depiction of politics and tensions within English departments felt pretty spot-on to me, though I'm six years removed from that scene. As a whole, however, the series and narrative arcs had major flaws.

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Can acting be phenomenal but characterization largely bad? Every actor turned in a stellar performance (shout out to Mallory Low, who exhibited a lot of range for her minor role as Lila, Dobson's teaching assistant), but the characters they inhabited were written like characters in bad Russian novels; just two ideas arguing in a room.

The first episode promises that the series to show how a degree in the humanities gives you wisdom rather than information, and also that dying humanities departments will be bad for the world, but that vital and under-examined question becomes a side issue once the cancelled professor narrative takes over.

The cancelled professor narrative sucks because it basically accepts the right-wing premise that contemporary student activism at its core is all about using out-of-context snafus to destroy brilliant white guys who spend their leisure time literally raising orphans of color. Though a lot of student activism is kinda bullshit (or, more generously, experimental), in this series we spend a lot more time feeling sorry for the genius professor who upholds the ideology the students say they espouse than we do feeling sorry for the kids growing up in a world run by trolls. I'm with Mudede—the series stiffs the students to its detriment. RICH SMITH