‘I’m Surprised by How Much Works’

‘I’m Surprised by How Much Works’


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Eliza Morse, Netflix © 2021

Jay Duplass as Bill in The Chair.

The new Netflix show The Chair follows a struggling English department and its new chair, Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh. The show has all the hallmarks of the academy, including an enrollment crisis, professors who are passionate about their areas of study, and of course conflict. We rounded up scholars to chat about the show’s portrayal of academe: Alison Kinney, an assistant professor of writing at Eugene Lang College at the New School; Grace Lavery, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley; Dan Sinykin, an assistant professor of English at Emory University; and Rebecca Wanzo, a professor and chair of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Sink into your sofa, and watch with us. We’ll recap all six episodes. For a comprehensive list of recaps, click here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca: I was surprised by how much actually works. There is enough that’s realistic that it started to become stressful to watch! While we’ve had a few college professors as regular characters on television shows (Gary on Thirtysomething and Noah Wyle on Falling Skies, whose knowledge as a historian specializing in colonial history amusingly made him a brilliant strategist to combat an alien invasion), their primary purpose seems to be sleep with students or demoralize them. Often both. The one show I can recall that focuses on college faculty was the Richard Dreyfus star vehicle The Education of Max Bickford (2001-2002). My fuzzy memory makes me think it was decent but got fewer things right, and was focused on the failed liberalism of a Baby Boomer who was somewhat contemptuous of how progressivism manifested on campus. Helen Slater played a trans woman who had recently transitioned, an example of the weird blend of sympathetic and transphobic representation common to that period.

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We rounded up four scholars to chat about the show’s portrayal of academe, and they did not hold back. Read the recaps:

What I like about this pilot is that it does understand so many things about the moment — enrollment “crises” (which, when you see how some of the classes are doing, isn’t a crisis at all), early-retirement push for senior faculty members, and a department that clearly had been given few new hires. It does make the mistake of confusing Title IX and Title VII claims. Also, Ji-Yoon’s decision to make Yaz co-teach with a senior white male colleague the YEAR SHE IS UP FOR TENURE, while he is in charge of her case, is something no chair with half a brain would ever do — and certainly something no woman of color who cared even a little about a colleague would ever do. That, and the weird way that tenure seems in the hands of one person, may be illustrative of the fact that a graduate student wrote this. Co-creator Annie Wyman is very, very smart about a lot of things in this series, but the fact that she hasn’t directly experienced all the intricacies of faculty life is apparent at times.

Alison: I imagine that most people watching will be academics, but I wish that the show had built in more context for viewers not in higher ed (or for any university administrators watching!), on budget crunches, enrollment, and the fallacies of bottom-line approaches. Vibrant engagement with students is essential, but I don’t want to see blame for departmental-budget crises put solely on bad teaching. Lousy teaching matters and is a systemic problem, but it’s an “and,” not an “or,” and it’s being applied a bit disingenuously here. I get that the destruction of higher ed through systemic neoliberal policies doesn’t necessarily make good TV … but maybe a show purporting to display the problems of chairing an English department should tackle those issues head-on?

Dan: The show wants us to know right away that it’s irreverent — even slapstick. Yes, the chair’s office is big and beautiful … but when the chair first sits in her chair, it collapses and she falls to the floor, followed by the title screen flashing “The Chair.” I’m a sucker for visual gags.

Things are falling apart. Ji-Yoon rehearses our cliché refrain (“dire crisis,” “enrollments are down,” “unprecedented times,” “critical thinking … is more important than ever,” “what we teach … cannot be quantified”), while we watch Bill drink seven beers, piss in a parking lot, fail to find his car, and steal and crash a golf cart. The show seems to love these difficult English professors — all make bids for our sympathy, even though most behave badly — while poking fun at our pretensions, maybe even worrying that our pretensions have the reins and are driving us to our demise. We purport to dispense wisdom but lack the wisdom to live well ourselves. Bill is the foremost screw-up, as the show itself reports, our stereotypical “disaffected middle-aged, white, male professor,” underperforming but overvalued, leaving slack for his women-of-color colleagues to pick up. But he’s also a new widower, kind to Ji-Yoon, good with Ju Ju, funny (he gives her a nameplate that says “FUCKER IN CHARGE OF YOU FUCKING FUCKS”) — and, I regret to admit, hot.

Grace: The first episode’s title, “Brilliant Mistake,” comes from the Elvis Costello song we hear playing over the end credits, “He thought he was the king of America / where they pour Coca-Cola just like vintage wine.” In this context, “he” is presumably Bill, whose brilliance consists of juxtaposing absurdism and fascism, and whose mistake is to use “Heil Hitler” as phatic speech. Whether such brilliance, or indeed such a mistake, warrants the name, let alone the kiss-off line of the entire episode, remains an open question. Nonetheless, the Costello lines that underscore Bill’s lecture seem to point to some of the episode’s commitments, as well as some of its blind spots. In particular, the lines narrate the difference between American and European depictions of political sovereignty on the one hand, and of cultural capital on the other. Any narrative about the humanities must explore the relationship between political power — such as that of “Board of Trustees Eisenstadt,” whose relatives are, apparently, especially deserving of protection from the sexual predations of male faculty — and the refusenik uselessness of the humanities as represented by the show’s one old white lady, Joan Hambling.

Dan: I love Holland Taylor as Joan Hambling. (I consulted IMDb, and she has played an academic before, in Saved by the Bell: The College Years.) We’re meant to be torn by her. She is, as it’s said, problematic: Her rant at the Title IX coordinator for wearing short shorts is out of touch, on-the-nose sexist, high-grade cringe. Taylor, though, delivers all her lines with such joie de vivre I find her character impossible not to like.

Grace: My favorite aspect of this episode, I think, is the amity between generations: Ji-Yoon’s friendship with Joan contrasts with the frosty, mistrustful relationship between Yaz and Elliot, which is a little more familiar — though perhaps also more plausible. But I’m not sure whether the price of that amity isn’t a universal infantilization, with each of the characters displaced from sexuality: the faculty lounge as a pasture for castrati.

And I can’t have been alone in thinking that the young woman to whom Bill was wishing a fond farewell at the airport (toodles, Doodles) was not his daughter but his lover, a fear intensified by her delivery of the episode’s most alarming and inexplicable line, “What happened, happened.” Yet the intimations of Bill’s sexual incontinence are never, in fact, instantiated. We are left with the model of a modernist professional: A straight man who uses 10-buck words, and still sounds cheap.

Alison: Re: Bill’s lecture, I found the actual content — apart from the Very Bad Decision — rather touching. The talk of carrying on in the absence of hope makes me wonder when this show is supposed to be set: Now? Post-pandemic? Pre-? In a world that didn’t have one? This is something my students want to talk about all the time: how to continue to push forward in the face of crisis. Well, I want to talk about it all the time, too! Particularly now, in light of how fully the pandemic has disrupted higher ed over the last two years. I wish the character had earned that moment with a little more work, though. Instead, it feels like a foil to the student demonstrations that I’m expecting in later episodes.





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