“The Chair”: A miniseries about academia

September 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Matthew was recently watching the new Netflix series “The Chair“, whose first season comprises six 30-minute episodes.  It’s basically “ER” set in a college—the fictional Pembroke University in New England.

Sandra Oh—the one character who’s very well acted plays Ji-Yoon Kim, the new chair of Pembroke’s English department, and has to face the usual travails of a chair: how to choose a distinguished speaker, dealing with faculty who don’t teach well, schmoozing the dean, listening to a colleague kvetch about poor office space, and so on. The plot is complicated by the fact that her ex-husband (Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass) is a professor in her department, is acting erratically since his second wife died, and he wants to reunite with Kim.

They’ve inserted some woke stuff to create drama, the main trope being Dobson’s quick Hitler salute when he mentions Hitler in a class. That, of course sets off a huge fracas.

I’ve watched the first three episodes (I guess there will be a second season), and I’ve pretty much had it. While Oh’s acting is good, much of the other actors overdo it, and the drama—sustaining a Hitler salute over the entire series (don’t read the Wikipedia summary if you want to watch it), is boring. I’m giving up. Matthew thought it was okay, but he’s recommended that I watch “The Wire” instead, and that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a much bigger investment—60 one-hour episodes—but it’s received universal critical acclaim.

In the meantime, you can see the official trailer for the “The Chair” below:


68 thoughts on ““The Chair”: A miniseries about academia

  1. The Wire is a serious investment of time, but you’ll hopefully find it a worthwhile one. Sadly, the actor who played one of the series’ most memorable characters, Omar Little, died very recently.

    1. D’oh, that reads ambiguously. Omar Little is the character; he was played by the recently deceased Michael K. Williams, who steals every scene he appears in.

  2. Although my wife and I watched “The Chair” all the way through and mildly enjoyed it, it doesn’t belong in the same conversation with “The Wire” which is the greatest tv show of all time, at least in its genre. Just watch the first episode of “The Wire” and you will see. In fact, just the first scene, in which we learn why a murdered kid has the street name “Snot Boogie”, should tell you that this is a very different kind of show.

    By the way, I don’t believe The Chair’s Bill Dobson character was ever married to the Ji-Yoon Kim’s character. Wikipedia describes him as her “friend and colleague”. They are definitely the love interest of the show.

    1. Yeah they were never married but had an affair. Ji-Yoon was engaged to someone else (Daniel Dae Kim) but broke it off for reasons explained later in the series.

      I enjoyed it but it’s a highly caricatured picture of academia evidently written by people who’ve never worked at a university.

  3. I[m with Matthew on The Wire. It’s plotted like a 19th-century novel. American novelists Richard Price (Clockers and Lush Life), Dennis Lahane (Mystic Rive), and George Pelecanos contributed to its scripts.

  4. I did watch “The chair” and did wonder whether Jerry would mention it here. It is a fun show that touches on some very serious issues often discussed here in WEIT such as freedom of speech, wokeness, pandering to the majority opinion, and diversity in hiring and retention of faculty. And yes, it cannot be compared to “The wire”. They are just different beasts. Do you compare “2001 A Space Odyssey” and Some Like It Hot” just because they are both movies? I guess you could, but…

  5. What I found bothersome about the Chair was the false narrative it presented. The woke generation of students didn’t bang up against old, white males. There was an intervening period of several decades when younger faculty came on campus, including women and minorities. In some disciplines, especially in the humanities and some social sciences, a subset of these younger faculty saw their mission as solving the world’s societal problems, especially around identity and inequities, which were almost always attributed to discrimination. This intervening change greatly increased the number and activist nature of the students, leading to the scenario that dominates the Chair.

    1. This bothered me as well. The idea that, in 2021, there’s some sort of clash between upstart young critical theorists who focus on race and gender on the one hand and an old guard of canon loving traditionalists on the other, is ridiculous. The critical theorists became department chairs and program heads 25 years ago. They *are* the old guard. It’s indicative of…something that they are still getting portrayed as young insurgents.

  6. I haven’t seen “The Wire” but understand that it’s excellent. As for The Best Show Ever, that would be “Breaking Bad.”

    1. I think the consensus top 4 is The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, all very different from the others, and all really excellent imo.
      I also enjoyed Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Weeds, and Justified.

    2. The Wire is great up until season 5. It’s not Game of Thrones season 8 bad, but it’s bad. If you watch it, stop at after 4.

  7. The Chair was just OK for me. I’m enjoying the weekly episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers, and found The Last Castle to be great. A Good Liar was interesting and amusing. On TV, I’m finding Manhattan to be interesting and on PBS Masterpiece Theatre, Guilt and Professor T to be excellent

    1. Nine Perfect Strangers is pretty good. I just finished Guilt last night and it was also pretty good. So which Professor T do you like? There are several: Belgian, British, and German. I watched a few episodes of the Belgian series and it was ok though a bit one-dimensional. I haven’t watched the others.

      1. I love the Belgian Prof. T. I saw a couple episodes of the British one which were probably aired in error, but I had grown attached to the original Prof. T. Loved the ending too,

  8. I’m in agreement with Matthew about The Wire, especially since at the time it was being made, my son was an art student in West Baltimore, so much of the environment was familiar to me. And the character development was superb – notably Omar Little (the recently deceased Michael K Williams) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). I have also watched The Chair, and while it’s not in the same class, as a former administrator at two Universities, I have to say it was not bad. In fact, in my 12 years in those roles, I observed (and often had to deal directly with) many of the situations portrayed in the series.

  9. The Wire – only series I have ever rewatched. And it was just as great the second time. Characters with actual depth. I know the NFL uses depth charts for positions. Maybe som producers should start using depth charts for characters.

  10. I gave up on The Chair after 3 or 4 episodes too. I’ve not watched The Wire, but it’s on my list. Currently I’ve been watching Peaky Blinders. I didn’t think I would like it, but it’s so well done I’ve had no problem continuing on with it.

    1. I’ve tried multiple times over the years to watch Peaky Blinders. I watch the first three or four (or maybe even seven or eight last time, I don’t know) episodes and then decide it’s too boring every time. Does it get better? Are the first few episodes just setting things up?

      1. It’s up and down. Sam Neill is astounding and terrifying, his Northern Irish accent incredible, while Helen McCrory, rest her beautiful soul, talks Liverpudlian rather than Brummie, and Adrian Brody’s American gangster cameo is laughably bad, see. And the set designers seemed to think that all early 20th-century black-country foundries had ten-feet bursts of flame shooting horizontally into the streets for no good reason (usually in slow motion). Did I say Sam Neill is good?

        1. OOOOOHHHH when does Sam Neill appear? I love him! If he appears as early as season two, I’ll sit through an entire season just to get to his character entering the picture…

          “And the set designers seemed to think that all early 20th-century black-country foundries had ten-feet bursts of flame shooting horizontally into the streets for no good reason (usually in slow motion).”

          That reminds me of movies where there’s a scene at the docks or near some warehouses at night, and someone is always doing some kind of manual labor that gives off huge sparks. Why are they doing that at 10:00 PM? Who welds on the side of a dock at 10:00 PM? And why are they doing it every damn time a movie scene takes place in such a location?

          1. Sam Neill comes in during season 1 and has a pretty good run, through season 2. He is definitely a bright spot in the show, playing a pretty dark character.

      2. For me, it didn’t take too many episodes to find it entertaining enough carry on. I’d say by perhaps the 3rd episode.

        I’m in season 4 of 5 at the moment and I’d rate it as a much better than average show, but not great. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. 🙂

  11. I may just be indulging my tendency to be curmudgeonly, but I have no interest in The Wire, or any other in the endless family of cop/drug/crime dramas constantly being churned out. Maybe it’s because I’ve had enough personal experience with all of the subjects in real life, but whatever the reasons, I find the melodrama nauseating. Each of the new shows that come along seems more or less based on all the previous cop/drug/crime dramas. Are some of them exceptionally written, acted, directed, and produced? Without doubt. There will always be those above the mean in any field, sometimes by a few standard deviations. But the subject matter is so overused, so derivative, and it so unreasonably glorifies and/or demonizes those involved as to feel like some form of religious pageant. At least The Chair seems moderately original.

    If personal experience is any guide, I suspect that all such dramatic shows tend to be comically unrealistic. Regarding my own professional field, at least, I can honestly say that nearly all medical shows were lamentably overdone, and the most “realistic” medical show I’ve encountered was Scrubs. It certainly resonated much more with my own experience of residency and practice than anything ever seen even for a moment in ER, or Chicago Hope, or Saint Elsewhere, or any of the squillion other medical dramas. I suspect that cops would feel similar things regarding police melodramas, and I know that a good number of the people in the street drug culture, in and out of prison, spend much more time in farcical mode than in dramatically tragic, (though some would no doubt like to SEE themselves as crime lords). Real life is too serious for people involved in it to take things too seriously and survive for long.

    Of course, I could be wrong about The Wire, specifically, having never watched it, and having no plans to do so. But I tried Breaking Bad and could not get into it, though I thought the acting and writing were clearly exceptional. The last “realistic” show I was able to watch for any length of time was Dexter, because it was pretty unique (I thought) and I had sympathy for Dexter’s point of view — not the part about killing people, just the sense of being utterly puzzled and put off by humans and feeling very much like an alien who is NOT particularly interested in primates having been stranded in a congress of baboons.

    1. “…I find the melodrama nauseating.””

      Trust me, there’s no melodrama. This is not your normal cop show. It’s more like a documentary reenactment.

      “Each of the new shows that come along seems more or less based on all the previous cop/drug/crime dramas.”

      The Wire is completely different from any cop show before or since. And it’s not a “cop show.” Not at all. It’s about every single type of person involved in Baltimore generally, with the drug trade as a lynch pin only because it plays such an enormous role in the lives of so many people there.

      “If personal experience is any guide, I suspect that all such dramatic shows tend to be comically unrealistic.”

      The Wire is the literal exact opposite. It’s the most realistic show you’ll ever see. Breaking Bad? That’s a TV show. The Wire isn’t written to be a captivating TV show. It’s written to be about real life.

      Please, just trust me. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before, anything you’ll see in the future, and doesn’t have even an iota of the things you hate about cop shows. It is the antithesis of all the things you hate. I hate those things too. It’s great because it did away with every convention so it could show reality. And that reality encompasses a lot of things, from the cops and the pushers, to the users, politicians, schools, teachers, newspaper writers and editors, and so on. It’s about everything, and all of it is reality. Drugs, poverty, underfunded schools, corruption…Only the characters are fictitious. Everything else is real. And it’s about so much more than cops and drug pushers.

      Just do it, man. Take the plunge. Trust me.

      EDIT for fans of the show: I can imagine Omar saying, “if you think this shit is melodrama, you ain’t never been here on the streets.”

    2. Ran out of edit time. If you do start thinking that it seems like a cops and drug pushers show for the first few episodes, just keep in mind that the world expands continuously over the course of the show, until it encompasses all the people and issues I noted. The opening scene could very well remind you of other cop shows, but just push through that reflex.

    3. The Wire is not at all the typical cop & crime show. It’s more about how the inner city works. It’s hard to put the difference into words but, if you haven’t seen an episode, try one.

  12. I think there is one area in which The Sopranos can claim preeminence: the performance of its lead actor. There were episodes, especially in the first three or four seasons, when I think Gondalfini was acting at the Brando level of emotional range and intensity. The rest of the cast often was very good, and actors in other series often were excellent. But I don’t think any of them rivaled Gondalfini at his best.

    1. Have you ever seen In The Loop? I wish Gandolfini got to do more comedy before he died. He was hilarious! And what a great movie that is.

  13. Did you ever finish The Sopranos? – best drama in the last 20 years in my book. I’ve seen it 3 times.

      1. Tony en famille wound up in the box with Schrödinger’s cat, suspended between life & death.

        And, given that Gandolfini himself has died, the wave function will never collapse; in that box they will forever stay.

  14. Just finished The Chair a few nights ago, and generally agree with Jerry and others. A decent idea for a show but it just didn’t work. I would recommend The Bureau (original title Le Bureau des Legendes). 5 series at 10 episodes each. Brilliant.

  15. I never watched the Sopranos, but I saw one scene (can’t remember how I managed one single scene) and was immediately struck by how cliched — bordering on mob parody — the characters were. I know it’s probably an unfair judgment, but seeing that scene left me with no desire to see the show.

      1. The Sopranos was filled with allusions to earlier gangster sagas (The Godfather and Goodfellas probably most of all) — some of them played straight, some of them subverted; some of them hung out on a lampshade for laughs, some of them buried in the subtext.

    1. It’s interesting how older movies and shows seem cliched when we watch them years later. The Sopranos does often seem cliche now, and not nearly as well-structured as newer shows. But, for the time, it was groundbreaking. It was the predecessor to all the “big TV” we see today.

      If you show someone movies like Halloween, Psycho, or The Big Sleep today, they’ll think they’re boring, cliched pablum, but they only feel that way because they established so many of the cliches we’ve become accustomed to over the years.

      The Wire, on the other hand, manages to be timeless. I guess it’s because it intentionally avoided being a TV show, instead opting to go for as much realism as possible. It’s not a high-concept 60 hour film.

      1. I get that The Wire has more realism but it definitely makes the characters more interesting than they probably would be in real life. It’s like real life but with increased density.

        1. Yeah, that’s fair. You can only do realism up to a point when you’re dealing with that much material and 60 hours. You can make a two hour movie that’s just real-time (like the recent and excellent 1917), but for a TV show, you’ll need to use “density,” as you so aptly put it. You can’t show every moment of every character’s life, so you have to condense a lot of it into specific scenes. It’s as real as it can be while still being a TV show.

          1. I agree that it is very strong on realism but its a different kind of realism. More about how the city, the gangs, and the police really work. It gets even more different when they get into crime at the docks.

      2. If you show someone movies like Halloween, Psycho, or The Big Sleep today, they’ll think they’re boring, cliched pablum, but they only feel that way because they established so many of the cliches we’ve become accustomed to over the years.

        In the same way that Hamlet seems like just a bunch of famous old sayings strung together with a palace-intrigue plot. 🙂

    2. I don’t think the Sopranos was cliched. The fundamental premise was that Tony, at least for the first few years, was a successful mob boss, capable of violence when violence was necessary and yet not a psychopath or a sadist. Gandolfini was able to pull this off. .

  16. I liked The Wire, and several of the other series mentioned here. We watch a bunch of such shows, as nights are long here, and we lack a social life. So I will give a few unmentioned recommendations-

    Dead like Me. It is funny and touching, and you will cry at the end. Mandy Patinkin stands out.
    Extras and Ghost Town, Ricky Gervais is central to both, which are funny and touching as well.

    Norsemen is a Norwegian comedy series that has a strong Monty Python vibe.

    Snowfall is a 1980s-set crime drama where the main characters get in on the ground floor of the crack wars on the west coast.

    1. I adore Extras, and the idea of After Life didn’t really appeal to me when I read about it. Then I think Jerry or someone else here recommended it, I watched it, and I loved it just as much as Extras. It’s absolutely hilarious, but deeply touching. Ricky Gervais is insanely gifted, and After Life proved to me that his gifts go far beyond mere comedy.

      Despite making so many extraordinary shows and standup specials, Gervais’ last hosting gig for the Golden Globes is probably the best thing he’s ever done. I still go back and watch it every now and then, just to marvel at him getting away with essentially saying “go fuck yourselves you hypocritical egomaniacs” to the entirety of Hollywood, live on TV, for three straight hours.

      I also love watching the outtakes from his scene with Patrick Stewart in Extras. Such a simple scene, but it must have taken all day to shoot!

        1. See, I never liked The Office (obviously we’re not even acknowledging the US version). I find it difficult to watch “embarrassment humor,” where all of the humor comes from some poor schmuck being constantly humiliated. A good deal of the humor in Extras also comes from that, but the character himself is still happier, has strong relationships with friends he can count on, and has plenty of ups as well. The Office just made me feel really bad for Gervais’ character, and that kind of thing always makes me feel uncomfortable.

          1. I agree. I often have to give up on a show when it offers nothing but “embarrassment humor”. I also preferred Extras to The Office. The David Bowie episode of Extras is a classic.

  17. I have to admit, despite the flaws in “The Chair”, it came out the first weeks of our semester, and it made me laugh. It was good timing for the show because it served as a reminder of how ridiculous some of the things we get stressed out by are. By that I am referring to the things like “a syllabus is a legal contract” (I had to “correct” mine 5 times because it is reviewed by 4 levels of admin, and yes, those numbers are real), or the faculty member being moved to the basement (I have a lovely office on the 3rd floor, but each faculty member who had it before me ended up in a basement office with no windows after a few years). Our department has been trying to twist arms for 6 months to get someone to be chair, a very unrewarding position at my U. Sometimes I get so “deep in the weeds” of academia drama that the show gave me a much needed push to let go of some of it.

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