Film & Television

In ‘The Chair,’ Sandra Oh Combines
Acting and Activism

Earlier this summer, my best friend and I decided to walk from her townhouse in Boston’s Back Bay to the college campus where we met more than four decades ago. Not only would we log enough steps for the entire week (and then some), but it would give us a good four hours or so to catch up on work, grown children, and our less ambulant spouses. Most of all, at least for me, it would be an opportunity to revisit those halcyon days of scholarship, camaraderie, and boundless potential.

As we strolled through the quad, surprisingly familiar after so many years, we both bemoaned the academic road not taken. I’d majored in English and Drama, she in History and Classics. Yet we’d ended up, respectively, in marketing and insurance. Comparatively speaking, the life of a professor seemed idyllic, stress-free, and blissfully apolitical.

Not so, according to many friends who did pursue careers in higher education.

And definitely not so, according to the cast and creators of The Chair, the new Netflix series starring the always marvelous and never more so Sandra Oh.

The Chair, created by actress/playwright Amanda Peet and academic/screenwriter Annie Julia Wyman, tells the story — or, I should probably say, the trials and tribulations — of Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Oh), the first woman and the first person of color to chair the English department of “lower-tier ivy” Pembroke College. On her first day, she admires her new office, wood paneling, stain glass widows, and smiles with satisfaction before taking a seat behind her desk, only to have the chair break beneath her. “What the fu …!” The spell is broken, and the real work begins.

This inauspicious beginning (and Ji-Yoon’s startled expletive) speaks directly to the challenges she’s about to face. English, once a venerated cornerstone of the institution has become an also-ran. Class enrollments are dwindling as the diverse student body demands both accountability (“Why aren’t we talking about Melville beating his wife?”) and return on tuition investment.

For Ji-Yoon, balancing the department’s budget — the first mission assigned to her by Dean Larson (David Morse) — means pushing out the department’s three oldest, tenured, highest paid, yet least popular, professors. These include Professors Hambling (Holland Taylor, who owns every scene she’s in), Rentz (Bob Balaban), and McHale (Ron Crawford). In a rather nasty act of passive aggression, the school has assigned Hambling, a world-renowned authority on Chaucer, an office in the basement of the gym. Rentz, meanwhile, is forced to co-teach with popular and avant-garde Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), whose students would rather perform a hip-hop dramatization of Moby- Dick (à la Hamilton) than write a paper.

Ji-Yoon hopes to award an important lectureship to Yaz, paving the way for the younger Black woman to earn tenure. A trustee, however, runs into David Duchovny (played, hilariously, by the actor himself) at the local farmer’s market and decides that he would be a better candidate (based on a half-finished dissertation on Beckett from the 80s). With the school’s endowment and rankings on ratemyprofessor.com in the forefront of every decision, Ji-Yoon realizes that regardless of her best intentions, merit is rarely rewarded.

Suffice it to say, despite this layperson’s assumptions, politics abound. Indeed, The Chair brilliantly brings to life what’s known in academic circles as “Sayre’s Law”: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” 

But the series, which runs six 30-minute episodes, focuses on other themes as well, such as the Asian-American experience and the pros and cons of cancel culture.

Ji-Yoon’s home life is complicated, to say the least. She’s the single mother of an adopted Mexican daughter, Ju Ju (the compelling Everly Carganilla), who is difficult and rarely shows the slightest sign of affection. Ji Yoon counts on her Korean father (Ji-Yong Lee) when her childcare arrangements fall through, as they invariably do, and her extended Korean family, while proud of her intelligence, is quick to “tsk-tsk” about her personal choices and lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Ji-Yoon tries to manage her conflicted relationship with former superstar Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass). Popular, irreverent, and sexy in a disheveled, just-got-out-of-bed way, Bill has just sent his daughter off to college and is still grieving the death of his wife a year earlier even as he awkwardly tries to kindle (rekindle?) a mutual attraction with Ji-Yoon, while fending off the presumed crushes of coeds. There’s actually a reverse #metoo scene that’s very funny and that I won’t spoil here. Let’s just say that some men may not be as irresistible as they think they are.

The real drama between Bill and Ji-Yoon centers around a careless and ill-advised gesture taken out of context and magnified a thousandfold by social media. Lecturing on fascism, Bill uses a “Heil Hitler” salute as a throwaway punctuation mark. Of course, with dozens of students armed with smartphones, nothing can ever be thrown away completely. So, in addition to placating dissatisfied veteran professors, fighting for inclusion, and trying to dissuade a television actor from his academic ambitions, Ji-Yoon has to deal with student protests and outraged calls for Bill’s dismissal.

The Chair is often funny, but it’s several steps above a typical sit-com. Oh manages to embody Ji-Yoon with exactly the right mashup of frustration and optimism, hope and despair. And, despite it all, she’s disarmingly funny. A tremendously talented actor (whom I have loved since her brief but memorable scenes as Anne Hathaway’s Vice Principal Gupta, “fawning over” Julie Andrews in Princess Diaries), Oh was attracted to The Chair as a welcome departure from her more serious roles as an M5 agent on Killing Eve and a gifted surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy.

“What Ji-Yoon goes through is not light at all,” she told USA Today. “But I thought the circumstances were friendlier.”

Of late, Oh has been extremely vocal about the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. At a Pennsylvania rally last spring, she made a passionate speech: “To everyone here . . . I will challenge everyone here: If you see something, will you help me? If you see one of our sisters and brothers in need, will you help us? We must understand, as Asian-Americans, we just need to reach out our hand to our sisters and brothers and say, ‘Help me and I’m here.’ I am proud to be Asian! I belong here! Many of us don’t get that chance to be able to say that, so I just wanted to give us an opportunity to be able to shout that.”

And Oh doesn’t see her actor and activist roles as mutually exclusive. “To be able to play a character, that is hopefully, an honest portrayal of a person, a woman, a woman of color, a woman of color who is at a certain position in her life, a single mom, someone who’s trying to be a good daughter, and then maybe have a romance with a friend and keep her institution going, is my activism.”

The Chair is available to stream on Netflix.

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