‘The Chair’ on Netflix Is a Must-Watch for Fans of ‘The West Wing’


The Chair, Netflix’s new half-hour dramedy starring Sandra Oh, is perhaps a bit too preoccupied with creating a buzzy thesis, when simply doing the reading would be so much more rewarding. Moments of levity, heart, and genuine human interest are almost drowned out by a campus-culture war plot that’s not nearly as interesting as its characters’ inner lives. Still, it’s an engaging show, and with only six episodes in its first season, an easy binge watch.

Oh stars as Ji-Yoon Kim, the first female chair of the English department at Pembroke, a typical New England liberal arts college. Though her gender is remarked on far more often than her race, there’s also an implication that she’s the first person of color to hold the position. She doesn’t face outright discrimination or some fight-the-system uphill battle for the respect of her peers; they like her, they voted for her. She is, however, caught between the demands of the institution, the expectation that her presence will have some sort of revolutionary effect on the floundering department, and the needs of her family. She has a difficult adopted daughter, Ju Ju, who drives away her babysitters and makes her grandfather crazy. Oh is excellent and sails through her scenes, effortlessly embodying Ji-Yoon’s combination of intellect, empathy and, well, stressed-out-ness. Scattered through the episodes is exposition about Ji-Yoon’s childhood and life before Ju Ju, but we don’t really need it. Oh makes the character three-dimensional all on her own. It’s not a flashy performance, but it feels real.

Ji-Yoon’s best friend in the department, and maybe in life, is Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), a recently widowed novelist turned teacher facing an understandable midlife crisis. Bill and Ji-Yoon have history and chemistry, but sparks really start to fly when Ji-Yoon discovers that Bill is the one person who can get through to Ju Ju. Rounding out the faculty are Nana Mensah as Yaz, a popular teacher with a modern approach who’s up for tenure, and Bob Balaban and Holland Taylor as semi-out-of-touch old-timers trying and failing to connect with today’s students.

There’s a lot to like in just watching these characters navigate the semester. How they each behave at a department party, for instance, or how they react to a special honor being given to David Duchovny, who guest-stars as himself. It’s fun watching Taylor sniff out the student who wrote a nasty message about her online. It’s sweet seeing Dobson be a dad. Though we don’t get even a glimpse of Yaz’s life outside work, her passion for teaching is obvious, and her fight for tenure—not in and of itself a particularly thrilling topic—is worth exploring. The dialogue is sharp and the pace of action feels just right. Many scenes and storylines reminded me of The West Wing, another peek-behind-the-curtain show about smart, hardworking people who mostly get along, who are navigating an old and powerful institution while dealing with the daily demands of the public (in this case, the student body) and the press (in this case, the student press). Friendship, romance, work, family, quoting the greats…this is enough to build a show on.

As the season progresses, however, these elements are increasingly sidelined to make room for a somewhat didactic plot about insensitivity in the classroom, stemming from an incident that’s neither provocative enough to be edgy nor funny enough to be satirized. Mostly, it’s just not as interesting as exploring these characters’ personal and professional relationships, which I really liked.


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