Netflix’s ‘The Chair’ Is the Perfect Show to Laugh At While You Pretend to Finish Your Adulting Degree

It’s hard to perform such heavy lifting from a sitting position, but The Chair admirably hoists a handful of burning questions over its head before dropping a few as it doubles over in laughter. But the old college try mostly succeeds in its attempt at grappling with zeitgeist dumbbells – white privilege, women’s rights, cancel culture, extremism – within the context of a half-hour comedy.

The show opens with Sandra Oh taking her seat as the first woman chair of the Pembroke English department before the chair collapses and she goes down hard, foreshadowing not only her academic fate but also the show’s aspirations. It’s spinach wrapped in pizza. Not here to make us healthier, but here to make us feel good while sneaking in a few bites of something vital.

The balancing act is no easy feat, and thanks to a dynamic performance by Oh as Ji-Yoong Kim, a single mother desperately trying to connect with her kid while also bailing water out of the sinking ship of her department, The Chair mostly makes the grade.

Appearing on the surface like an ode to modern academia, it’s really about two much bigger things: The long-awaited reckoning of institutionalized white privilege that sometimes verges on throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and the rise of clickbait culture and how that instant reward system has trickled down from the digital planes of the internet into the sacred places of higher learning – suggesting that no place is safe from the future of meme thought and viral hot takes in a disposable world.

A perfect example of this nexus is found in fallen rockstar professor Bill Dobson played with earnest perfection by Jay Duplass. Bill is emerging from the fog of his wife’s death, content with sleeping on couches and phoning in his lectures until the new chair demands he “get his shit together.”

Because Ji-Yoong also happens to be the love of his newly-widowed life, he heeds the wake-up call, entering his next class ready to grab the bull by the horns. But his gusto quickly runs afoul when a lesson about the spectrum of fascism and absurdism inspires Bill to haphazardly throw up a Nazi salute. Sure, it’s the ideal idiotic gesture found at the cross-section of absurdism and fascism, but a video of this regrettable moment goes viral around campus, leading to student protests to remove perceived Nazism (and Bill) from campus.

When Bill’s apology goes awry (due to his privileged and self-righteous ego), he quickly finds himself deleted from Pembroke’s social fabric, replaced by a game David Duchovny (hilariously playing himself). The show sets up Bill’s cancellation with sympathy for both sides, the entitled, headstrong intellectual who scoffs the system and the entitled, headstrong students who seek damages for his harmful actions.

But a closer look reveals a student body who – though they complain about a lack of context in the old guard’s teaching of white literature (Melville’s Moby Dick) – simultaneously stoke their own knee-jerk response to a misleading video that is willfully un-contextualized.

So who’s context matters?

While there’s a lot more to unpack here, in the end, The Chair turns out to be more of a fence, straddling the divide between woke and cancel culture without actually landing. It seeks to hold a mirror up to the reality of this moment but does so within the confines of a bygone utopian liberal arts atmosphere.

Despite the kid gloves and Netflix gloss, the message reads clear: We’re all scapegoating someone. People are angry and don’t know who to take it out on, so they pick the nearest target and go full sprint – a pattern all too recognizable in the age of cancel culture, conspiracy theories, and online vitriol.

So while this delightful tonic of irony and optics amusingly calls out personal, institutional, and societal motivations in the age of Twitter, season one struggles to bring many of its ensemble characters into focus. But The Chair’s wily scratching of the surface has already left a welcome mark in the conversation.

Cover Photo: Netflix

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