The Chair (2021) | TV Review
by Rory Buccheri
Some might think there isn’t much going on behind an English department. And, if there is, it isn’t worth paying attention to. Landing on Netflix and scoring millions of viewers after one week, The Chair (2021) is here to prove them wrong. Starring a dazzling and mind-numbingly talented Sandra Oh, the new Netflix show brings a real ideological mind-battle to the public by showing the controversies and power dynamics behind the English department at Pembroke. This fictional school is struggling with enrolments for English classes, yet it stubbornly holds on to outdated methods and values.
What this show exposes, in its brilliant dramatization of teachers’ lives, is a set of problems that are plaguing many colleges and universities both in the States and in Europe. There is the constant struggle to uphold critical thinking, the debates on what free speech is and should be, as well as the constant battle for non-White, non-privileged scholars not only to rise to the top, but to even be offered any stable job. The unsettling truth this show presents is weaved into the lives of each character: Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh), the first woman of colour chair of the department, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), a beloved professor whose students turn on him, and Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), one of the ‘dinosaurs’ of the department who refuses to retire. Dr Hambling in particular is a thrilling character, echoing the struggles of women in academia in the ‘80s and embodying, with her career, the inequalities still persisting in male-dominated environments. Similarly, young scholar Yan (Nana Mensah) embodies the struggles academia presents to talented, young, Black scholars whose bright future is often tampered with by privileged mammoths who got in positions of power and accumulated wealth, as she herself highlights, on the back of cotton-pickers, sugar trade, and slavery.
Like the white whale featuring extensively in Pembroke’s classes about Melville, these themes are too big to be captured in six short episodes.
The key to navigate the huge themes tackled in this short drama comes from the mouth of professor Dobson, suggesting that ‘the text is a living thing’ and that accessing it is just the beginning of thought and, consequently, of change.
There are many elements of the show that are worth highlighting but, just like with a good book, you would miss out on the real experience if you did not consume it in its entirety.
picture courtesy of Netflix