Perhaps, like me, you inwardly sigh with the breath of a thousand winds whenever you hear the words cancel culture, as mangled and distorted as the expression has become. If so, know that the people behind Netflix’s The Chair are likely sighing too. And yet here they are, presenting a unicorn: a near-perfect television show that clocks in at just three hours, and a comedy-drama that skewers the subject of free speech in academia without taking a side, demonizing a particular group, or descending into tweed-clutching.
The Chair, created by the actor Amanda Peet and the academic and screenwriter Annie Wyman, feels like it could have been a play (Peet has written two). The show’s structure—from introduction to rise to complication to catastrophe—is pure Freytag, and its setting (the fictional Pembroke College, a frigid northeastern school that’s supposedly a “lower-tier Ivy”) is insular and wood-paneled. In the first episode, Ji-Yoon Kim (played by Sandra Oh) has finally reached a lofty career peak as the chair of the Pembroke English department. Apprehensive and endearingly awkward in a duffel coat, she walks into her new office, unwraps a gift (a nameplate for her desk that reads FUCKER IN CHARGE OF YOU FUCKING FUCKS), and sinks into her new desk chair, which promptly breaks beneath her. The pratfall is also an omen: More than the furniture is rotten at Pembroke.
The college, in fact, is in crisis, and the English department is hemorrhaging enrollments, largely because the majority of its professors are tenured, over 70, and totally unwilling to try to connect with their impassioned Gen Z students and their progressive priorities. On her first day, Ji-Yoon is instructed by the dean to ax the most egregious dinosaurs, including the Chaucer scholar Joan (Holland Taylor) and the American-lit professor Elliot (Bob Balaban). Elliot’s classes pale in popularity compared with those of his dynamic colleague Yaz (Nana Mensah), and yet he’s presiding over her application for tenure. More troublesome still is Bill (Jay Duplass), a rock-star professor of modernism in a state of catastrophe after his wife’s death. During one packed lecture, Bill satirically performs a Hitler salute while considering absurdism’s power against fascism, sparking a viral meme and a furious debate about free speech on campus.
To The Chair’s credit, it satirizes without picking a team, and resists the urge to make anyone ridiculous. (It’s also the rare gift that allows people with an English degree to feel fleetingly relevant, although it should come with a trigger warning for anyone who was ever lumbered with The Dream of the Rood.) Elegantly and briskly, Peet and Wyman skewer all the reasons campuses might be igniting in discontent: professors held to different standards depending on their race and gender. Students made very aware by their mounting debt and limited opportunities that things are harder for their generation than they were for any other. Elder statesmen who suddenly realize how little they matter now. “I used to bestride the world like Colossus,” Elliot mournfully tells his wife in one scene, as she brandishes a box of adult diapers at him. “Well, now you’re going to bestride it in Tranquility Briefs,” she replies.
Within its tight frame, the series packs in more than shows three times its length. It’s particularly rewarding in its portrayal of Ji-Yoon’s personal life: In her 40s, after breaking up with her longtime partner, she tried for years to adopt, eventually matching with Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), whom she named after her dead mother. The sore points and conflicts between Ji-Yoon, her Latina daughter, and her elderly Korean father, Habi (Ji-Yong Lee), are thoughtfully and sweetly rendered. Oh has always excelled at playing women who reject the idea that things should be any way other than how they want them to be, and Ji-Yoon—harried, focused on work, snappy, paranoid that her daughter doesn’t really love her—embodies a kind of motherhood that’s rarely seen on-screen but is deeply gratifying nonetheless.
What truly sells The Chair, though, is how fast and funny it is while throwing around a legion of informed ideas about a well-trodden subject. “Stop saying ‘gag order’!” an exasperated Ji-Yoon yells at a younger teacher’s assistant after being excoriated on the front pages of the student newspaper. Then she pauses, catches herself, and diplomatically adds, “Actually, no, say it as much as you want.” Classes on Moby-Dick turn not to themes of monomania and open-mindedness, but to whether Herman Melville was a wife beater. The most talented people are given the hardest time because their talent allows them to see how urgently change is necessary. “Why should they trust us?” Ji-Yoon says of the students protesting outside her office. “The world is burning and we’re sitting here worried about our endowment.” The rifts between the generations seem impassable, and yet the thing the series suggests might unite them is the one thing they can agree on: that whatever art, language, and literature might mean to different people, they’re always worth fighting for.