The Chair (2021)

A Netflix Series

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Academic “Wokery” undergoes top drawer peer review in the new Netflix Original Series created by Amanda Peet and Amanda Wyman. Pembroke University (no apparent connection to the women’s college tethered to Brown) has a new English Department Chair. From Day One, Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) finds herself a-swirl in a tempest in a teapot that threatens to boil over. Contentious voices from a phalanx of politically “woke” students grow louder; a seasoned but semi-somnambulant claque of tenured professors becomes the target for students’ scattershot complaints; and as the new department chair, she is the designated broker for the administration’s fiduciary double-dealing.

Don’t let the oak-paneled offices fool you. Stodgy exclusionary traditions here have been supplanted by the ubiquity of mobile phones recording during lectures, the photoshopping of professors to frame them up, and inquisition-like confrontations on campus quadrangles which bear no resemblance to the exercise free speech. Quite the contrary: they are meant to shut down the free exchange of ideas that higher education is reputed to favor. Race and sex are the inquisitors. You are guilty until proven innocent when it comes to determining whether you qualify as woke, on the one hand, or racist and sexist, on the other. There is no succor here for the excluded middle. Ye who have entered here, hold onto your mortarboards!

The series does not scant genuine wrongs done to non-white and/or women faculty, such as fewer invites to faculty parties, where off-label cocktail chit-chat steers key decisions affecting promotions, tenure, and career advancement. On the other hand, it points up the false consciousness and myopic hindsight that impeach prevailing sex and race barriers during historical periods when the tasks of leveling the playing field were less “micro”-driven than they are today. Such offenses loomed more “macro” in the fifties and sixties because a black or brown middle class, while small, was nowhere in evidence in the political numbers we see today.  The protests were more working class in character, with thousands in the streets facing down racist cops with dogs, and electric cow prods rather than ill-chosen pronouns and “colonialist” commentary about hairstyles or CRT. Their impact waxed more transformative of society than has the cathartic spurning arsenal which current generations of micro-aggression fighters have brought to the battlefield.

Today’s students rewrite their bills of particulars on the backs of those earlier struggles. Today, the affirmative action demand that in the 1970s gave rise to industrial jobs previously denied minorities and women, has, under middle class stewardship, been transmogrified into a brick thrown to smash so-called “glass ceilings” in the race to grab top-tier management jobs.  Without working class women and minorities populating protests and lending them a working class character, lessons gleaned from previous eras go missing or are consciously disavowed. The Pembroke students’ transparent temper tantrum tactics issue from their middle-class urge to excoriate potential allies for their lack of wokery, rather than organize them to amass solidarity from among the broadest possible ranks, to win yet unmet demands to end continuing racist and sexist oppression.

Perhaps the greatest lesson “The Chair” offers is that you can’t fight a clique with a counter-clique. If the hallowed halls have shielded a good old boys club for what seems like forever, the fight to open faculty tenure to others is not won via sinecures tendered in cowering submission to an equal but opposite identity politics tyranny. Even though Yaz (Nana Mensah) is eminently qualified academically, the students’ reductive approach to defending her, ironically narrows her salience to a manifest destiny based on being black and female.  She stoops to conquer by redacting and re-enacting a work of Melville to conform to the sound bite/hip hop prototype she embraces as student vernacular. As with special effects everywhere, this virtue signaling gambit overrides the production and strips it of Melville’s layered inducements.

The older Caucasian faculty has become crusty and ungainly with age, and displays an unbecoming indolence bred by a cynicism preternaturally endemic to academia. What better instrument with which to flay opportunistic administration politics? In one scene the wife of Dean Paul Larson (David Morse) proposes that the actor David Duchovny, whom she has run into at the Farmer’s Market, replace Yaz as the school’s distinguished lecturer. Then the dean himself moves to assign Duchovny the duties of tenured faculty member Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), who students have targeted as a fascist for his having mocked fascism. All this is in the service of killing two birds with one stone: titillating the funders and shutting down free speech.

All is not lost: in the course of inhuman events, the students discover that when the protective armor is stripped away from tenured faculty, despite the tedious lectures that they haven’t updated in 30 years, they do still embody a wealth of literary history to unearth.

It’s a ball of wax in this wax museum, and little Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla), Ji-Yoon Kim’s (adopted) daughter, is the self-appointed child who will lead them, because she unwittingly (though sometimes coyly) calls them as she sees them arriving along sightlines that need no lens. She sets about to deconstruct the falsification of her life, which has been engineered to conform to the paradigm her mother has sometimes fought, but ultimately adapts to, with a go-along-to-get-along reluctance. It turns out that Ji-Yoon is not living in a utopia of her own engineering, but under capitalism. Even in its ivory tower, or maybe especially there, its searing contradictions can lay one low. More irony comes to the fore as the shunned Bill becomes Ju Ju’s most reliable ally in her relentless quest for authenticity.

Fine-tuned schadenfreude writing lends itself to deft direction. Pitch perfect performances by Duplass, Taylor, and Carganilla, outshine Oh’s standard-fare joyless delivery.

Toba Singer

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