Rating : ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½
Plot: There’s trouble at Pembroke University’s English department. They have too many old and expensive professors who no longer attract student enrolments. Budgets are tight, and with demands to increase diversity they are battling to remain relevant. Except they are not really battling very hard. To the frustration of students and junior faculty, change occurs at a glacial pace. Enter Dr Ji-Yoon Kim as the new departmental Chair. She is the first woman to take the role, and also the first person of colour. Expectations are high. Students expect progressive change. Senior faculty expect her to support the traditional values of the ivory-tower, and the Dean demands that she move ageing tenured academics into retirement. While trying to calm the troops, she reacts to disasters, often with hilarious consequences. There is a lot of fun poked at old academics who are out-of-touch with contemporary developments, and while she’s trying to manage the increasingly belligerent senior group, her arrogant but popular colleague, Professor Bill Dobson, is captured on camera making a nazi salute in the classroom. Not surprisingly, all hell is let loose. In the middle of this managerial baptism-by-fire, Ji-Yoon is also trying to keep things functioning domestically. She is a single-mum and her precocious daughter wreaks havoc at school and at home. Ji-Yoon’s perilous battle for survival on both fronts carries the action. Anne Julia Wyman co-created the series with Amander Peet, and Wyman’s insider knowledge of the academic environment shines through every episode.
Cast: The Chair has a sterling cast, and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim is outstanding in the lead role. We get a real sense of her pride as she assumes the Chair, and then her growing frustration and alarm as she becomes aware of the Dean’s cost-cutting agenda. At the same time, she is very funny with great comic timing and wonderful lines. It’s a joy to watch her struggle with a demanding Dean, protesting students and rogue colleagues. But great as she is, the show-stealer in this series has to be Holland Taylor as Joan Hambling. A Chaucer specialist, she is one of the departmental oldies that Dr Kim is expected to move into retirement. Joan’s amazing reactions to expectations within the new academic environment are simply hilarious. Her portrayal of the eccentric academic is a delight to behold.
Filming and Setting: The fictitious Pembroke University could be any campus across the Mid-Atlantic states – Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New England. Often found in idyllic settings, the buildings are graciously beautiful and steeped in history (I won’t go into the relationship many of these institutions had with the slave economy, but it does add another layer of complexity to all this when you think about it). Enough to say, Pembroke captures all the scholarly gravitas and elitism that academic institutions strive for. The Chair’s office is a good example – rich wood paneling, stained glass windows…you get the idea. And Pembroke sits within a charming and privileged community with its big houses and spaced-out lawns, all dusted by the mid-winter snow.
Personal Comments: Academia has any amount of wonderful satirical content, and after thirty years as an academic I have more than enough material to write a farce myself. The first four episodes of The Chair are brilliant in the old David Lodge style (if you like a good academic farce take a look at his book, Changing Places). Each short episode is engagingly and cleverly written. Some of the characters are heavily stereotyped, but mostly in a sympathetic and humorous way. All good so far – more than good actually. But then the last two episodes lose their way as the series shifts into rom-com mode. Mixing genres, while also trying to tackle more serious contemporary issues is too ambitious a task. It’s a pity. The Chair suits its half-hour comedy genre, and I would have loved to see them dig deeper into the vast potential that academia has for farce – delving into postmodernism as a Trojan horse or naked emperor, whichever side of the fence you may sit. Or perhaps the departmental Chair becoming increasingly Machiavellian… now that would have been a 5 star series.