My wife and I saw The Chair last night — six episodes, thirty minutes each, on Netflix — and loved it. It’s billed as a comedy drama, and that’s what it is — a depiction of college professors, administrators, and students — at a fictitious university, Pembroke, not quite Ivy League. It’s also close enough to the truth that it could have been a documentary of any university I’ve ever taught at, all these years.
Sandra Oh, always superb, plays Ji-Yoon Kim, who has just become Chair of the English Department. Her primary nemesis is Dean Paul Larson (that is, he’s a Dean) perfectly played by David Morse. He’s interested in money. Which means he’s out to get — as in get them to leave — elderly professors who pull in high salaries and few students. He’s smart, articulate, and other than money his only other goal is to protect the image of the university. If you’re a professor, who has served time as Chair of your department, as I have, you’ll instantly recognize Larson. He, along with the university public relations hack — another instantly recognizable character — provide the drama that spices up the comedy.
Kim must also deal with another recognizable academic problem: the short shrift that women have been given over the decades in their professorial roles. Holland Taylor plays sassy Joan Hambling, one of the oldsters Larson has on his hit list. She’s stymied by the university’s computer technology — who isn’t — but puts up a fight, and conducts it with style and bon-vivance
Social media are whipping boys for everything these days, and The Chair is no exception. A professor explaining to his class how fascism arises gives a sieg heil to demonstrate a point. That’s captured by a student’s phone, sent out to social media, and the professor soon finds himself condemned as a Nazi. Larson of course wants to fire him, even though he has tenure, draws in lots of students, and is not that old.
Lots of other all-too familiar academic gambits just slightly exaggerated, if at all, in The Chair, which makes not only for continuous good laughs but a blueprint for change in academe.