Review: Not even Sandra Oh can fix The Chair’s skewed perspective

Oh stars as the English department chair at a fictional university, but the Netflix show is more interested in a train-wreck professor


THE CHAIR (Amanda Peet). All six episodes available to stream Friday (August 20) on Netflix Canada. Rating: NN


If you’re going to build a show about a perpetually exasperated character, of course you cast Sandra Oh.

She’s always had a special knack for comic frustration, and having her play the first person of colour – and the first woman, period – to chair her fictional Ivy League university’s faltering English department is a great idea. The scenario offers endless obstacles for Oh’s Ji-yoon, starting with her attempts to modernize the calcified, disconnected faculty (including Bob Balaban and Holland Taylor) and pull her recently widowed star prof (Jay Duplass) out of a self-destructive spiral, all while dealing with a willful young daughter (Everly Carganilla) at home.

And if The Chair stayed with Ji-yoon, it’d probably be a lot more entertaining. But it insists on splitting its time with Duplass’s sad-sack Bill, whose mockery of a Nazi salute triggers a scandal that runs through the entire series – and with whose clueless entitlement the series gradually sides.

The general “no, it’s the children who are wrong” vibe feels depressingly in step with executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s response to audiences disappointed by the way they wrapped up Game Of Thrones than the work of creator/producers Peet and Annie Wyman.

As the episodes piled up, I got the distinct sense that Peet and Wyman’s original conception was more concerned with Taylor’s aging, flustered Chaucer expert, who endures a catalogue of humiliations over the course of the series; similarly, there must have been more for Nana Mensah to do as Yaz McKay, a brilliant Black woman Ji-yoon is trying to position as the department’s next star, and who instead is constantly being disregarded and minimized by the white, tenured faculty.

Instead, both of these characters have their development cut off at the knees so that Bill can learn and grow – except that he doesn’t, really. The show sees him as an adorable scamp, even when he’s fucking up profoundly and endangering both his livelihood and Ji-yoon’s. Duplass does his best to show us the sadness behind Bill’s ain’t-I-a-stinker grin, but he’s never anything more than a collection of self-righteous speeches and apologetic shrugs. And it’s infuriating to watch The Chair treat him like a hero all the way to the end.

@normwilner

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