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The Chair Is an Elegy for the Life of the Mind

The Netflix show with Sandra Oh captures an existential crisis.

There is a poignant pleasure to be found in loving something past its prime. Watching The Chair, a Netflix limited series in which Sandra Oh plays an academic struggling to stave off the decline of the English department she heads at a lesser liberal arts college called Pembroke, I caught myself in some nostalgia for my youth. It’s only partly that the show, down to its soundtrack, seems squarely aimed at my demographic, thirtysomethings with vague, long-abandoned designs on grad school. More than that, The Chair reminds me of my lost illusions, of a time when university English departments seemed viable refuges for people who loved books and ideas, and dramedy a thrilling, novel rejection of the big dumb unmixed moods in conventional television—so awkward and ambivalent, so much more like life!

It’s harder now not to see this style as merely a way to play it safe, covering everything with a protective layer of irony: Characters can be broadish types in familiar predicaments, nothing need cut too deep, and the jokes don’t have to be that funny. Yet precisely because neither the academic humanities nor tonally ambiguous television programs have retained their aspirational glow, the two feel eerily well suited to each other: What we’re watching is a group of gifted people valiantly attempting to suspend their disbelief.

As Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon Kim, says, “I feel like I arrived at the party after last call.” She wonders whether Pembroke’s English department will even exist in five years. By her mid-forties, she has made it from, in her words, “Why’s some Asian lady teaching Emily Dickinson?” to being the first woman chair—the sight of her amid a sea of old white guys becomes a recurring visual gag. That the position has turned out to be a poisoned chalice doesn’t quite feel coincidental. Much of the show records her progress through an obstacle course of indignities. The elevated language she must use to defend the humanities is undercut by all the scrambling and begging and scheming for funds, the management of inflated egos, jockeying, infighting, and PR catastrophes, the necessary toadying to the cynical dean. “But why are you a doctor?” asks Ji-Yoon’s wry, precocious adopted daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla). “You never help anybody.”

Early on, she’s given a list of the highest-paid faculty with the lowest student enrollments and told to choose who must be squeezed out. The harried Ji-Yoon is always having to throw one problem at another and hope some happy accident resolves them: She makes one of those at-risk dinosaur professors, Elliot (Bob Balaban), a Melville scholar, co-teach with Yaz (Nana Mensah), the brilliant young Black woman whose class on Sex and the Novel is always overflowing, assuring Yaz that this will reduce his crankiness while serving on the tenure committee; in fact, he leaps at the chance to treat Yaz like an assistant, having her pass out his worksheets to students who are there only to hear from her.

Other cast members also take their share of pratfalls. Holland Taylor, who can spin gold out of pretty much anything, plays Joan, a bawdy Chaucerian who refuses to read her (unenthused) student evaluations. Joan has suffered the usual slings and arrows of academic misogyny—decades serving the department in thankless, feminized ways; never getting to go up for tenure—but reaches her limit when she is relegated to a shabby office in the basement of the athletics building. After heading to the Title IX office to complain, though, she promptly alienates the young woman staffing it by attacking her for wearing skimpy denim shorts: When told she previously worked at a nonprofit, finding foster homes for refugee children, Joan remarks, “Well, I hope they didn’t have to look at your fucking fanny while you did that.”

Jay Duplass brings his best shambling hangdog moves to the role of Ji-Yoon’s crush, Bill, a recent widower in the heavy-drinking-and-screwing-up-at-work phase of grief. In the first episode, he falls into a hedge and accepts a ride from a female student before getting it together to inspire his class with rousing talk of Beckett and Camus fighting in the Resistance. The closing-credits music is turned up loud over his teaching, but before that we get to see him illustrate a point about the link between fascism and absurdist literature by raising his arm in a Hitler salute, and so the arc of the rest of the series becomes instantly clear.

While The Chair disguises itself with some success as a formulaic show about a small group of people trapped together in an institutional space, you can tell there’s more to it than just new set dressing for the same dynamics you’d normally see play out in a fictional emergency room, law firm, newsroom, or political campaign. (And I should hope so: The looks, the clothes, and the stakes of a university English department would surely be no one’s first choice of setting for a generic drama.) The show, co-created by Amanda Peet and Harvard Ph.D. Annie Wyman, feels like a real attempt to grapple with the problems of contemporary academia, and the humanities in particular, by someone who has felt invested in them.

And though there are familiar jokes here, The Chair doesn’t take many of the cheap shots you’ve heard before about university life: There’s no sneering at jargon-clotted, incomprehensible prose or at the fragmentation of research into arcane subfields; no lamentation over the supposed hypersensitivity of students and restrictions on what can be taught or discussed. Instead, many of the tensions roiling the department are treated with curiosity and respect. Although the old-timers are often smug, lazy, or worse, their outrage at the pandering commodification of learning isn’t unreasonable or in bad faith; still, as Yaz says impatiently to Ji-Yoon of Elliot, “I can see why you feel sorry for him: He only got to rule the profession for the last 40 years.”

In one episode, Ji-Yoon, having promised Yaz a prestigious lectureship (both because she deserves it and because she is clearly feeling undervalued and may soon leave), is forced by the dean and his cronies to give it instead to the actor David Duchovny, who, they keep pointing out, is also a bestselling author. Worse still, the higher-ups are set on handing over a course on Death and Modernism, usually taught by the increasingly troubled Bill, to the actor. And so, miserably, Ji-Yoon goes to Duchovny’s house to deliver Bill’s lecture notes.

Duchovny plays himself with relish as an amiable narcissist, leaping out of his private pool to welcome her, wearing a wine-colored Speedo and reveling in the thought of using this opportunity to finally acquire the Yale Ph.D. he started back in the 1980s, before The X-Files. In this scene, along with the requisite cracks about other movie-star writers like Ethan Hawke and James Franco, we hear an unexpected defense from Ji-Yoon not just of the general humanistic value of teaching and scholarship, but of the particular research developments that have occurred within English departments over the past few decades—which have elsewhere in the culture been a reliable butt for jokes since at least the theory wars of the ’80s. Until this point, the show’s literary references have been as broadly recognizable as possible: All Melville and modernism, and we even saw Ji-Yoon quote Harold Bloom (a false note presumably sounded because it’s hard to choose an English professor everyone has heard of) in a speech extolling the virtues of the humanities, however unquantifiable they might seem when compared with hard sciences. But here she unequivocally stands up for the contemporary state of her discipline, telling Duchovny how stale and dated she found his thesis on Beckett, which she was obliged to read: “A lot has happened in the last 30 years,” she says. “Like affect theory, eco-criticism, digital humanities, new materialism, book history, developments in gender studies, in critical race theory.”

Likewise, The Chair handles a campus protest scene, in which a crowd of shouting students confronts a professor, with notable delicacy, neither side playing the cutout villain. There are sincere, substantive disagreements, real attempts to listen and communicate on both sides, shifts of collective mood that feel more or less true to the rhythm of events in these kinds of situations. Things truly fall apart only after the administration, for its usual mercenary reasons unrelated to the issues under debate, sends police in to clear the quad, with predictable consequences.

The Chair is an elegiac variation on the campus romp. Like Christine Smallwood’s novel The Life of the Mind, it finds in the deterioration of the humanities an echo of a deeper existential crisis: Here, too, the university seems both to reflect larger forms of societal disintegration and to inflict their symptoms on people in the most intimate realms of experience—their relationships, their sense of themselves, their patterns of thought—even though The Chair’s essentially sitcom structure requires at least a hint of a happy ending. As the final shot looks down from afar on the campus with its vaguely Anglophilic columns and verdant lawns, it appears small, almost toylike, oddly fragile.