I don’t binge-watch very often, but the new Netflix series The Chair seemed worth an exception.
It’s … fine.
The cast is terrific. Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass inhabit their roles perfectly, and I have to give kudos for casting David Morse as the dean, even though his role is badly underwritten. He has been consistently excellent for decades, and I honestly don’t know why he isn’t a bigger star.
The series is set at Pembroke University, a fictitious near-Ivy, so in some ways, it’s on a different planet than mine. Most of the offices are preposterously large and beautiful; it’s actually a plot point when one professor is moved to a more pedestrian one. Donors play a much larger role than they do here. The professors are improbably well-dressed, and the English department (the department of which Oh is the chair) is much too small for a university of that size. Adjunct faculty go entirely unmentioned, making the department that much smaller. The seasonal cycle is also weirdly off; what looks like the start of a school year apparently takes place in January. Either I missed a comment early on, or it’s just a weird unforced error. And the level of groupthink among the students borders on caricature.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize some parallels. I laughed out loud when Oh asked one senior professor when she’d last read her student evaluations, and the professor deadpanned, “1987.” When that same professor set off on a bureaucratic quest to get out of the basement office, “Have you talked to your chair?” became a running joke, and I chuckled every single time.
The series tries to make hay of Oh being the first female chair in the history of the department, but most of her dilemmas would be common to any chair. The faculty in her department expect her to be their advocate, while the dean expects her to carry out marching orders. That kind of role confusion is real, and even endemic. In this case, as so often happens, part of the conflict comes down to resources. The dean pressures her to nudge some highly paid senior faculty towards retirement, in light of low enrollments and fiscal pressures. They don’t want to retire, and the chair is caught in the middle. (Somehow, Pembroke U is supposed to be beset by declining enrollment and yet enviably elite. It’s one or the other, folks …)
The series makes the boringly predictable choice to downplay institutional issues and focus on the rom-com “will they or won’t they” tension between Oh and Duplass. If you actually follow the institutional storyline, it’s hard not to notice that it doesn’t go anywhere. The senior faculty band together, more or less, and defend their station. They get rid of the chair who challenged them and effectively drive away the other woman of color in the department. Yet no fiscal (or other) consequence ensues. The chair who came in as a change agent was quickly deposed, and the status quo ante mostly restored. Only Duplass loses his job, and that’s over an incident that would have been considered trivial in the era before smartphones.
I doubt that many who see higher education as a bastion of political correctness will notice, but the institution acted just as a deeply conservative institution would. Rather than defending principle, it avoided messiness. In that, at least, the show is pretty accurate.
In at least one sense, Oh’s character is to blame for her own troubles. She vastly overestimated the positional power that goes with being a department chair. I smiled at the times that various members of the department either mockingly referred to her as “boss” or bristled at the notion of having a boss at all. That’s largely accurate; in the settings with which I’m familiar, chairs are more like “first among equals” than bosses. Tenured faculty often don’t think of themselves as having bosses at all. Yes, there are people who sign off on their evaluations, but there isn’t much deference involved. That’s both good and bad, but Oh’s character seemed surprised by it. She shouldn’t have been.
Still, the series is short enough to watch in a single sitting, and the charm of the leads is enough to make it fun. But what a missed opportunity! If only there were reliable source material on how college administration actually works …