She has survived psycho assassins on Killing Eve, but that’s almost child’s play compared with what Sandra Oh endures among the backstabbing academics and a generation of too-easily-triggered college students in The Chair, Netflix’s very broad satire of higher education’s lowering standards.
Pride goeth before a pratfall for Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, a harried single mom who’s staggering under the symbolic weight as a struggling English department’s first female chair and a rare person of color within a tony East Coast university’s 87 percent white faculty. “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes,” she laments.
The deck certainly seems stacked against her. Beyond the pressing issues of a “catastrophic” decline in enrollment, budget cuts and past-their-prime profs who won’t retire (including a priceless Bob Balaban), Dr. Kim finds herself in a cultural crucible. Her risky not-entirely-platonic friendship with the self-sabotaging, drug-addled and recently widowed professor Bill Dobson (a maddeningly whiny Jay Duplass) becomes much more complicated after his latest ill-conceived classroom antic causes a politically woke campus uproar.
The malaprop-prone dean (a droll David Morse) warns her that her department is “hanging by a thread,” and allies are scarce as Dr. Kim tries to save Bill’s job, while waging uphill battles to get a prized Black colleague (Nasa Mensah) tenure and a distinguished lectureship. (The guest speaker the college prefers sets the stage for an inspired celebrity cameo.)
A saving grace for Dr. Kim, and for The Chair, is the great Holland Taylor as Prof. Joan Hambling, a bawdy longtime Chaucer scholar for whom a reassigned office is the last straw after a career of being overlooked and maligned because of her gender. I’d love next season, if there is one, to be all about her.
The Chair, Series Premiere, Friday, August 20, Netflix