The Chair Star Sandra Oh and Creator Amanda Peet on Finding Humor in the Woes of Modern Academia

The new dramedy takes on cancel culture and "the struggle to actually make change."

by | August 20, 2021 | Comments

Is it possible that one of the year’s most scathing take-downs of cancel culture, inherent sexism, and generational inequality could be a Netflix comedy about the insular world of academia?

Actress-writer Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman created six-episode dark comedy The Chair, which stars Sandra Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly-appointed chair of an English department at a fictional liberal arts university.

Sandra Oh in The Chair season 1 key art

(Photo by Eliza Morse / Netflix)

Gifted with a desk placard that reads “F—cker in Charge of You F—cking F—cks,” Ji-Yoon is a single mom and the first woman to hold the position. She’s attempting to find a work-life balance while dealing with budget cuts, her colleagues’ complaints about the students, the students’ complaints about her colleagues, and a best friend reeling from the loss of his wife.

Peet told Rotten Tomatoes that, as an actress who is turning 50 next year, “I’m really interested in the idea of my own irrelevance.”

But, as far as subject matter for a series, Peet said she was interested in the fact that “everyone’s talking about the humanities are dead” as well as the “intergenerational tension” where “you have these young idealists and then you have middle-aged folks like me whose idealism has tempered a little bit.”

An example: Holland Taylor plays Joan Hambling, a tenured professor being passively aggressively pushed out of her job. Unlike her fellow senior academics who are male, her office has been moved to a dingy corner of the gym with no WiFi. When she goes to make a Title IX complaint, she dresses down the woman doing the intake form for wearing revealing shorts to a job where she has to take in very serious stories of assault and harassment.

(Photo by Eliza Morse / Netflix)

“I very much identified with her outrage,” Taylor said of playing Joan. “And I’m at an age where I would. As far as the sexism early in her career, she would never have been aware of it as that. That’s the point, kind of. It all snuck up on her with this realization while a younger character — a colleague, who is 30 — is well aware of that.”

The crossroads that the school’s English department finds itself in is particularly laid out in the relationship dynamic between Nana Mensah’s professor Yaz McKay and Bob Balaban’s professor Elliot Rentz. She’s a rising star — not just in the department, but in the profession as a whole — who teaches packed classes with titles like “Sex and the Novel” and encourages Hamilton-like interpretations of Moby Dick. His lectures echo through his empty auditorium to the few nearly comatose students who bother to show up for class. He’s also her tenure advisor.

Mensah consulted with two friends from this world — one a working academic; another who dropped out of her PhD program — and says she learned just how “political” and “cutthroat” this world is inside its ivy-coated towers.

When asked about finding the humor in a story that could be construed as an attack on ageism, Balaban said, “It is somewhat funny to be wedded to the past and not be able to see the future.

“It can be a tragic situation or it can be a slightly funny, odd situation, which I think is the is the pleasure of this particular series.,” he said, adding that “it’s wildly up-to-date and current with what’s going on and cancel culture is not a very popular subject, even though it’s everywhere to be seen … It’s not a boring idea. That is actually grounds for real excitement, because it pits so many people against each other.”

(Photo by Eliza Morse / Netflix)

An embodiment of so many of these things is English professor, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass). A beloved professor at the university going through his own emotional turmoil, he makes the mistake of speaking off the cuff during a lecture and punctuating his rant with a Sieg Heil — definitely not the best move to do in a room full of kids with smartphones.

“I don’t want to give my interpretation, because I think that moment is up to a lot of interpretation in terms of what was running through his brain at that point in time,” Duplass said of the Nazi salute scene. “But I definitely think a certain dose of white male privilege is also involved.”

What the story of The Chair is not meant to be is a conversation on tokenism, Oh said. Ji-Yoon got the job based on her own merits and worked hard to achieve all she has done in her career.

“I don’t think that that’s what we’re doing,” Oh said. “I think, if anything, we’re examining the struggles to actually make change. And that is extremely relevant. And we’re doing it in a comedic way, where you’re just really going through the day-to-day life of someone who’s trying to make that change.”

There is no news of a second season of The Chair yet, but Mensah argued that there’s no shortage of material still to explore.

“It’s such a rich world with such crazy personalities,” she said. “We can turn the page on this particular chapter and keep going and keep exploring.”

The Chair is now streaming on Netflix.

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