The Chair

3 out of 5

Created by: Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman

covers season 1

The Chair is an incredibly smart, often very funny show that, given one’s tolerance for a hefty dose of f-bombs and some open-ended no-clear-answer discourse on some hefty topics, is absolutely worth the viewing investment.

…It’s also about 19 shows too many, though, using its college campus setting to explore gender disparities, white institutionalism, ageism, racism, parent / child bonding, cultural expectations, social media, celebrity – and more, along with a romance subplot, ’cause why not – in six half-hour episodes which, smartly-written as they may be, are simply not enough to cover all of these things to any satisfaction.

In part, I get it, and I’d say it’s part of the show’s m.o. to prove something: that none of these things are isolated, and a truly “modern” point of view has to be aware of how sticky and inextricably tied together any and all of these things are, and all without any easy solutions; at the same time, by projecting through a lens of commentary – and including that romantic backing, between new English department chair at Pembroke U, Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh), and recently disgraced professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) – The Chair’s writers seem to be reminding us to maybe also chill out a bit – to have these conversations, absolutely, but also to remember that we all have ongoing lives at the same time.

Then again, I dunno. A simpler read is that The Chair is a workplace comedy informed by the melting pot of 2021 concerns, and said concerns are given an intelligent, thoughtful voice by an incredibly talented cast and considerate writers, but the goal is still to make the audience laugh: so aged-out professors, and Ji-Yoon’s problems with her adopted daughter, and the well-intentioned misfires addressing POC balance and inclusion in the workplace – all of these are, within chopped-down 30-minute formats, somewhat treated as hijinx, complicating Ji-Yoon’s new position.

We start out with her taking over that new job, ready to make sweeping changes, only to realize how heavily-handed-down are the politics she’ll have to deal with – primarily sticking with white males in charge. Soon enough, Bill Dobson is making a drunken Hitler salute during one of his lectures, which goes viral, and things spiral out from there – including, along the way, a fantastically winky cameo from “Doctor” David Duchovny, as himself.

I don’t want to suggest that the show would be better by limiting its scope, but the sharpness it shows in the brief blips of runtime we get could only have been better served by, at least, having more time to deal with them, and maybe in a slightly cleaned up fashion. As it’s presented, The Chair is entertaining from start to finish, but it can only ever start a conversation before it moves onto its next one, somewhat preventing it from ever getting to any true laugh out loud moments or more striking moments of clarity, or honesty. Though since some shows hardly ever make it to a starting point, I think the concept is to be applauded, especially with so many damned talented people (in front of and behind the camera) bringing it to life.