The actress brings a harried warmth and sharp intelligence to a show about the first woman to chair a troubled college English department
In a time when real-life clickbait articles about political showdowns on university campuses read like repetitive, unfunny satire, “The Chair” manages to bring a light touch to a topic that tends to be high on self-seriousness and low on actual stakes. It’s largely thanks to Sandra Oh’s ability to humanize anything that this Netflix limited series (from showrunner Amanda Peet and the producers of “Game of Thrones”) manages to avoid taking the lowest-hanging fruit at every turn.
The pilot opens with Ji-Yoon Kim (Oh) stepping up to the title role as the head of Pembroke College’s English department, a “sinking ship” that’s losing enrollment under the weight of complacency and knives-out political jockeying. Ji-Yoon is totally aware that her promotion was at least partly an optics move to name the department’s first female, first POC chair, but she’s determined to become the mentor she wishes she’d had on her own way up.
Her first order of business is trying to promote Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), the lone Black professor in the department, and one of the few who are able to excite students into enrolling. Her older, white, tenured colleagues Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Joan Hambling (perfectly played by Holland Taylor) can’t keep up with courses titled “Sex and the Novel,” Twitter assignments and original raps about massaging spermaceti in “Moby-Dick.”
Ji-Yoon is unfairly burdened with the task of delivering the message to the stodgier professors that they’re “on notice” to change with the times. While juggling all the delicate egos is tricky enough, her biggest headache ends up being Bill Dodson (Jay Duplass), a cliché of the boozy, kinda-sexy professor who’s been skating by on the prestige of a long-ago bestselling novel that’s fading from memory.
When Bill gives a Hitler salute during a lecture — and of course, the moment is caught on several smartphones — Ji-Yoon has to clean up the mess. That quickly snowballs into a P.R. nightmare, forcing her to make lose-lose decisions between keeping her chairperson position — which she’s broken both the glass and bamboo ceilings to earn — and committing to the ideals that inspired her to reach for it in the first place.
Both the students and faculty are shown as absurd and hyper-sensitive at times, but the series is capacious enough to acknowledge the valid concerns on all sides. “The Chair” doesn’t have anything particularly surprising or new to say about political correctness and identity politics in academia, but the show does allow plenty of opportunities for Sandra Oh to work her magic, bringing a harried warmth and sharp intelligence to every scene, especially ones at home with her daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla), who’s going through the pains of being a Mexican adoptee into a Korean family.
Oh even manages to sell a messy romance with Bill, which could have been cringey (and sometimes is) but becomes a sweet anchor to a series that ends up feeling, at six half-hour episodes, a bit too short. We could use six more installments with this excellent cast as long as Oh stays at the head of the table where she belongs.
“The Chair” debuts on Netflix on August 20.
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