10 Reasons The Chair is essential viewing
Cultural Pulse Rating: ****
The Chair is a pioneer story that opens a portal into the complex and often brutal cultural battleground that is American academia. The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert anointed it “Netflix’s Best Drama in Years”.
Korean American star Sandra Oh stars as Dr Ji-Yoon Kim who becomes the first multicultural woman to become the Chair of Pembroke – a fictional “lesser Ivy” university.
The woman of the hour” arrives with great plans to increase diversity and enrolments but inherits a: “ticking time bomb that they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.”
She fronts up daily to a dysfunctional department – a heady mix of cancel culture fury, diversity fatigue, ageing white privilege and race politics all within the supposedly genteel mahogany panelled walls of a university.
This cocktail of madness Dr Kim has to face is all compounded by navigating a mid life crisis including single parenthood, a disappointed traditional Korean father, a rogue adopted Latino daughter and her star lecturer/boyfriend who spirals into the abyss after a tasteless Nazi lecture joke backfires.
At 6 episodes and a series total of 3 hours it’s a wild ride and I give it a solid 4 stars for its bravery, often hilarious comedic moments and the education I received about the complexities of both sides of the issues.
My 10 reasons to watch “The Chair”:
- It shows the real complexities of Diversity
The cultural diversity movement is often portrayed as an aligned homogenous group but in reality the lived experiences, progress and historical backgrounds of ethnic groups are starkly different.
Although Dr Kim is a Korean-American pioneer in academia she is viewed as a sellout by Yaz, a talented African American female professor whose brilliant lectures have made her the rising star and most sought after scholar, yet she suffers the frustration of being road blocked due to her race and gender.
Their scenes together are an emotional rollercoaster with Yaz dropping some hard truths on Dr Kim: “You act like you owe them something. Like you’re here because they let you be here, not because you deserve it. I mean, what are they without us at this point?”
There are many powerful moments including Yaz pointing out to Dr Kim that the funding for the university was: “seeded by benefactors who got rich off sugar and cotton and railroads. Off the backs of black people and yellow people.”
- Learn why English departments are struggling
It seems a form of insanity that university English departments are struggling across the western world, considering the importance that language has as the core societal engagement tool.
‘The Chair’ delivers one powerful explanation in which the older professors struggle to stay relevant and get “butts in seats”, leading to declining enrolment numbers with one notable professor not updating his curriculum for 30 years.
Budgets at the university are flowing to hard skills involving the sciences that have a clear path to employment and guaranteed growth industries.
Far from performing its role as a learning centre and sanctuary of critical thinking, knowledge and opposing viewpoints, the Pembroke English Department looks tired, irrelevant and clinging to outdated structures.
It’s cautionary sub-tale of the importance of adaptation.
- Joan and Elliot – A window into ageism & the other side of diversity
The cold and painful reality of increasing diversity of underrepresented groups is that members of the dominant group will need to make way. Rarely in a film is this addressed in a balanced way and ‘The Chair’ opens a window to the trauma of potentially losing your job as a result of diversity initiatives.
The first two professors in the firing line for ‘encouraged retirement’ are Joan and Bob, both of whom were once revered but whose student enrolment numbers are down.
Joan has endured 32 years of sexism at Pembroke and her wit and humanity shines in every scene. She is a firebrand on the warpath to address her historical grievances and finds an outlet for her anger, hunting down an anonymous student who had been smearing her on the ‘rate my professor’ website.
Elliot on the other hand is a ball of insecurity, the once star Professor on the wane, unable to process the changes around him and passively aggressively blocking any change. He doesn’t quite make it to villain status but his fear of change is relatable as he faces up to diapers and glucose tablets.
He also delivers some of the funniest lines explaining in one debate on the importance of social media networks: “Jesus only had 12 followers, does that make him a loser.”
- An inside look at adoption and single parenthood
The challenges of single parenting are given significant screen time in ‘The Chair’. After a breakup with her long term partner, Dr Kim adopted a Latino daughter and named her Ju-Hee after her mother.
Ju-Hee is a walking identity crisis, lashing out and resentful of having to learn Korean and a tormentor of teachers and babysitters alike.
The mother-daughter relationship is an incredible warts and all portrayal that shines a light on the challenges of juggling single parenthood with a career.
- The laughs
I came for the drama and stayed for the laughs. ‘The Chair’ is definitely a comedy and uses humour to take on the hot button issues.
Of particular note are Dr Kim’s cold one-liners in dealing with her daughter Ju He. In one scene Ju He screams at her mother: “You don’t know anything about my heritage, puta!”. Without missing a beat, Dr Kim responds: “The reason you know the word ‘puta’ is because I’m paying for Spanish lessons.”
There is also great humour mixed with sadness with the older declining professors. In one poignant scene Professor Elliot Rentz faces up to dealing with dwindling class numbers and a bout of adult bed-wetting. “I used to bestride the world like Colossus,” he complains. “Well, now you’re going to bestride it in Tranquility Briefs,” his wife replies.
- The Romance
Pembroke’s star Professor Bill Dobson’s life is falling apart. His wife has died, his daughter has flown the coop and he is sinking into a messy bachelor abyss of pizza, drink and drugs leading to him failing to show up to classes. He is suspended by the University for his Nazi prank, yet Dr Kim staunchly backs him through the whole ordeal, risking her own employment. It’s a real relationship, riven by complexities yet it works.
Dr Kim is loyal to a fault but no soft touch and delivers some hard truths including: “You think you’re one of those men who can dust themselves off and pretend it never happened.”
An unlikely star of the show is Dr Kim’s father Habi who pines for a traditional migrant life where his daughter marries “Peter Seung in Michigan”. He is aghast at his daughter’s choice of Bill for a new partner labelling him ‘a crumpled man’.
Although he is obsessed with the migrant cultural metrics of money, culture and status, he is still up for a laugh and is very relatable pitching in wherever he can, helping with homework and kids parties.
- The Doljabi function
Viewers seeking cultural nuance will be richly rewarded by the traditional Korean ‘doljabi’ ceremony to celebrate baby Minji’s first birthday and aimed at blessing the child with good, health and a prosperous future.
At a major Korean community function, Minji was placed on the mat in front of 6-8 items each representing a future option including Teacher (Pencil), Artist (paintbrush), Athlete (Tennis Ball), Doctor (Stethoscope) and a White String for long life.
Of course different members of the family hope for Minji to grab different items and the ensuing chaos is hilarious including some blatant cheating.
- A balanced look at Cancel Culture & Diversity
Diversity, inclusion, affirmative action and cancel culture are highly polarising pillars of campus life. The writers have done an excellent job in trying not to take sides or demonise and delivers sympathy for both sides.
The students at times are portrayed as robotically rigid and in one instance lynch-mob terrifying in their cancellation attempts but the professors are also equally skewered as comically old world and resistant to change.
As the narrative unfolds, the viewer makes their own decisions based on an empathetic airing of the grievances of both sides, avoiding the blame game.
Wherever the landing point is for the viewer, the key takeaway is how difficult and complex the issues are and how quickly they can escalate into chaos.
- The magnificent performance of Sandra Oh
After the darkness of Killing Eve, The Chair is the perfect vehicle to showcase her full arsenal of acting tools. I rode every disappointment as she slowly realised that being a whirling dervish of deal cutting and compromise could not change the fact she had been handed a poisoned chalice.
What should have been a historic honour for her and her community becomes an instant burden and she realises she is a powerless puppet of the Dean and trustees and her only real power is to cull some of the older professors.
Staring down her crumbling home life, she navigates sexism, racism, shrinking budgets and a race scandal culminating in the academic equivalent of a baying town square witch-hunt.
She stunningly pulls off this complex character journey with deeply emotional and serious moments peppered with fantastic comedy.
She should definitely be in award contention for this iconic performance.
The Chair features strong writing, refreshing acting performances and is a worthy investment of time for those interested in understanding the tectonic cultural clash in western academia. It has provoked discomfort from both sides – a sign that it might be close to the mark.
The film deftly empathises with multiple perspectives and is trying to say that change is messy and whilst progress is made, neither side feels happy. And that is unlikely to change in the absence of respectful dialogue.
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