The Chair on Netflix and its white furniture

I entered academia to have a reasonable alibi for quitting my second job within three months soon after film school. I went in blind; I was the first generation, post-graduate student, in my family. My grandfather barely had money to finish school (where he met my grandmom) and my parental unit was married off right after they got an undergraduate degree each. As much as they wanted me to study, nobody expected that I’d take the academic route and definitely not after my stint at the film school where my weekends were spent resting my bones after heavy-duty shoots through the week.

I was enrolled for a combined MPhil/Ph.D. and as a starry-eyed, first-generation kid, I had little idea of the politics within departments of social science and seeing professors as humans. Sure, my stint at the liberal arts college (for my undergraduate degree) prepared me to see the readings, but the rest of it came as a surprise. The professors had lives of their own and wanted us to learn; they weren't looking for subservience, as the schools and colleges previously had groomed us to believe. The transition of calling them by "Ma'am/Sir" is replaced by their first name and that's when you know, this is nothing like any area of work you've seen before.

For anyone who’s had the pleasure of entering the university for research programs or knows people in their life in academia, would find The Chair on Netflix an intriguing watch. I found the show oddly comforting, pulling at the heartstrings while allowing me the space to digest the mishaps that seemed to snowball into a bigger deal with each episode. The little quips and the heart in the show got to me, despite the nagging troubles in the areas that were misrepresented (including the power vested in the hands of the students). Maybe, I live in India and we have seen some of the worst attacks on the student fraternity in the universe or maybe I’m a cynic, The Chair, for all their high drama value and memorable lines couldn’t convince me that the students and unions can have that kind of power (don’t forget I have survived all 7 years of the regime at the university).

The series opens with Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) taking over as the Chair of the Department of English at Pembroke, a fictional university, cashing on their legacy and trying their best to maintain the status quo with the optics. The old-timers include one solitary female professor, Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) in a gang of all-white senior academics. Among the young ones, Yasmin (Nana Mensah) is the first black woman faculty in the department. What starts off as a “day in the life” of Jin-Yoon and each of the women, ends up opening a larger back story in the way the university functions, in this day and age. It could have been a coming-of-age drama, but frankly, the professors themselves acknowledge to be “dinosaurs” and “old-timers” and there’s not much age left there, and that’s the cruel persiflage the makers, Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, intend at.

Over six episodes, the series looks at Ji-Yoon’s relationship with racial and gender politics within the department as she grapples to forge a relationship with her adopted daughter Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), outside of the university. Ju-Hee, who prefers JuJu to her birth name, is raised as a free-spirit who isn't taught like conventional kids- she knows she's never seen her birth mom, and further asking questions about the genitals will ensure her caretakers will leave her alone in free reign.

The arc between Jin-Yun, JuJu, and the difficult male-child Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) is just as riveting as the dynamics between the old and the new faculty, as well as white faculty vs those of colour. Throughout the series, there’s a constant struggle for appeasement and pacification, all the while toying with the ideas that plague us in this day including cancel culture, the virality of content, trolls, using influencer power to determine the worth of anything. There is also a constant tug of war between the ideas of good vs bad jokes, culture, and heritage vs acceptance of cosmopolitanism. The word "content" seems to give fever to academics, and then others have accepted it. The show tries to highlight academia coming to terms with the world we live in, a vastly different unit that perceives a lot of them as dispensable instead of worshipping them and their old school ways.

While the show is set in the university and is expected to take the viewers through the dynamics of what makes the professors who they are (zany, absent-minded, interesting, and so on), much of The Chair is a commentary on the lives we live, whether or not we are teaching at a prestigious college. Take the case of Professor Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban), a white dude in academia with the power to hold his black colleague down because her pedagogy is not something he can see eye to eye with. Never mind, that the students he’s teaching are all enrolled in her class and he’s barely registered anyone for the semester. His wife laments how she had to stay back from her possible career in academia with child-rearing to allow him to shine and yet, he doesn’t for a second, register the career he’s made on the backs of so many women, of people who made him into who the Melville monster scholar he is. Take this, and apply it to any industry, field, or whatever else and see if the show works in putting out a point. Closer home, I can think of caste politics plaguing industries, including academics jerking one another off especially if they are upper-caste gang gang.

The premise may be set in a university, but The Chair makes for a wholly relatable story of people of colour struggling to make a name for themselves against the old-timers and women at work constantly navigating between being empathetic and showing their girl-boss vibe to balance their careers to further advance them, all the while trying to not step in a landmine blowing up in their face.

I won’t lie when I say I enjoyed the first half of the season more than I did with the second half because it sure did get darker and personal than I’d anticipated. It also did get a lot sillier with David Duchovny and a whole episode dedicating to him and Jin-Yoon being asked to equip him with resources he needs to take on suspended professor Dobson’s class. Sure, I learned that I’m not the only one who calls “David Duchovny” by his full name and that he is on the same Ph.D. status as me (“incomplete”), yet, something about giving a lot of screentime to him over the others (Yaz, my girl), got to me. Joan catching in on her troll, Jin-Yoon managing her daughter made me want to see Yaz’s life but I got none of that, almost kicking her to the back of our minds. No, don’t say the Moby Dick rap idea was her best. I’m certain there’s more.

The lines are memorable, each episode brings out a gem, one better than the other. I can expect t-shirts and Instagram bios to reflect that, in time to come. The cast is dazzling and they perform; each one of them, from Sandra Oh to David Morse, makes an impact presence, delivers lines with earnestness, and performs to make you believe in their act as academics and those outside of the world. The tracks used as score in The Chair are picked tastefully to match the chaos in the show, and bangs in each scene. Overall, even with little gripes here and there, I can say, I’m a fan of The Chair and I am wholly stanning the queen JuJu for her badassery in each episode.

Keep The Chair in the room for Netflix and Chill; it is a perfect watch for a binge, short enough to last you over a McDonald’s meal and long enough to keep you hooked on a Sunday afternoon. It questions and makes you think of your interpersonal equations at work and with people you are constantly managing at work, but also seeing yourself juggle roles outside of work, especially if you are a woman of colour and your life is a big fucking struggle, no thank you pandemic.

The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.