(Some spoilers for The Chair herein.)
There seems to be a widespread perception that new Netflix series The Chair, starring Sandra Oh, is a satire of academia.
It is not, or if it is, it’s a bad one, which is why I don’t think we should be calling it a satire.
Don’t get me wrong -- it’s an entertaining show, primarily on the backs of its unbelievably charming cast, led by Oh and including equally winning turns by Bob Balaban, Holland Taylor and Jay Duplass. Some stakes rise that are sufficiently felt to keep you invested through the six 30-minute episodes, and I found it a wholly satisfying weekend binge.
The Chair follows Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly anointed and first female chair of English at Pembroke College, which we find out in the penultimate episode is a “lower-tier” Ivy, but throughout gives off a much stronger vibe of a failing small liberal arts college. Balaban and Taylor are aging faculty whom the dean (David Morse) would like to see put out to pasture because students are no longer interested in their courses and they draw the highest salaries. Duplass (playing Bill Dobson) is the charming/brilliant/bumbling/damaged professor and widower of one year who has an unrequited mutual attraction to Ji-Yoon, and who also gets himself in trouble through a series of questionable behaviors that also aren’t entirely his fault, lest we find him unsympathetic and therefore unworthy of Sandra Oh.
There is also Nana Mensah as Yaz McKay, a young, brilliant Black scholar beloved by students and possessing all the right publications who is going up for tenure but who may be in trouble because of the old (white) boys’ network exemplified by Balaban. The way her character is misused, primarily as a problem for Ji-Yoon to solve, as opposed to someone who is shown exercising her own agency, is one of the shortcomings of the show as a satire.
While it’s billed as a comedy, and there is a clear presence of humor, there aren’t a lot of actual jokes. I only laughed out loud once, and that was at a line delivered by a grade schooler that worked as a wonderful non sequitur. The show has elements of comedy of manners and perhaps farce, as represented in a Taylor plot line when she tries to track down the originator of a negative/vulgar Rate My Professor comment, and while it’s understandable why people are calling it a satire, this is a mistake.
It is a “dram-com,” a show with a certain lightness of tone and occasional slapstick absurdity (someone pratfalls in every episode) whose chief pleasures are in the moments rooted in Ji-Yoon’s domestic situation, a single mother of an adopted child from a different national origin struggling to balance her career drive and principles with a hectic life that also includes her widowed father who insists on only speaking Korean. The most affecting scenes, by far, happen off campus and have nothing to do with academia.
One reason I know The Chair is not satire is because the reviews that describe it as such do so in a way that make it clear it’s not actually a satire. Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic argues that the show “elegantly skewers” free speech on campus while also declaring that it “satirizes without picking a team.” A satire that doesn’t take sides isn’t worth much as a satire, and in The Chair, no one is actually skewered, primarily because it would be distressing to see people as charming as Sandra Oh, Jay Duplass and Bob Balaban actually run through so they bleed.
At best, the characters are poked, not skewered, not even Dean Larson, who is interested only in dollars and optics, but whose concerns are justified, given the 30 percent drop in attendance and the necessity of “butts in seats” to make the college and department run. Not even David Duchovny, playing a clueless, self-important version of himself, is anything more than gently cuffed around.
As a viewer, I didn’t mind. The show is a safe space for stuff to happen that’s never going to get too upsetting.
Discussions about the “accuracy” of the show -- including the one I’m about to participate in -- are mostly silly as a measure of the show’s quality. Pembroke and its people are a recognizable rendering of reality within the confines of a TV show and other movies and TV shows about academia, which is why you will see plenty of commentaries from tenured faculty talking about how much the show gets “right.” I’ll have to take their word for that. I don’t know these people and they don’t know me.
But The Chair’s shot at satire is undermined by its choice to focus almost exclusively on the lives of tenured faculty. These are characters who all maintain their belief in the system, and because of that belief think that return and recovery is a matter of choice, of trying harder, believing more. The show chooses not to share the direct experiences of those for whom the system cannot work and who would make much better vehicles for exploring satire.
There was a juicy target for genuine satire -- the impossibility of marrying the educational mission with the realities of institutional operations -- but by focusing solely on the lives of the professors, the show makes it impossible to explore that vein. Imagine Catch-22 told entirely from the point of view of the senior officers not going into harm’s way, and you have The Chair.
The choice to either marginalize -- in the case of Yaz -- or disappear -- as in the case of contingent faculty -- the people who actually experience the system as impossible, the ones who shield the tenured faculty from the full reality of the imploding system, doesn’t just make the satire toothless, but nonexistent.
There are hints of this other reality in a single speech Yaz delivers to Ji-Yoon in the final episode outlining the systemic barriers she faces as a Black woman scholar, and in Bill’s graduate student who sees her slim chance of threading the needle of a career disappearing as Bill’s own career spirals down.
Or in a small scene where Holland Taylor’s Professor Hambling goes looking for the “ethics and compliance” office but finds the same young woman who she’d encountered in an earlier episode, only that time she was the Title IX coordinator. Hambling is confused until the young woman says, “You’re in the right place. We merged with Title IX … We’re now a department of one.”
Following the experience of that staff member would be a rich mine for satire, but she is present for only the two scenes with Hambling. The remainder of the second scene involves the staffer listening to Hambling describe the additional burdens she’s faced over service responsibilities being a woman, a reality that the staffer validates. The scene ends with Hambling determined to get at least a little of what she’s definitely owed.
We have no idea what the staffer experiences. She is necessary only to move the professor’s story along, but in doing so, we are denied a deeper look at the institutional reality.
Effective satire takes sides. It must put something in its sights and take it down. It should, ideally, make you hate something, or at least understand the nature of the underlying absurdity, the impossibility underlying the perceived reality. Satire does not make room for the sentimentality that makes The Chair enjoyable as a TV show. Satire is Slim Pickens a-hootin’ and a hollerin’ as he rides a nuke to detonation as “We’ll Meet Again” jauntily plays at the end of Dr. Strangelove.
For The Chair to work as satire as structured, it is the students who must be the targets, because it is ultimately the students who are most ridiculous, with their ill-conceived protests against Bill. Throughout the show students are given no role other than to serve as foils to the professors, and so come across as caricatures. All signs point to a show that intends to skewer untethered student self-righteousness. For much of it, The Chair seemed as though it was written by someone who had deeply imbibed Coddling the American Mind and was convinced that students were doing things “wrong” and it was up to the faculty to set them right, that all it took was a little courage to risk “butts in seats” and stand up for principle.
At every turn, rather than being a vessel into which professors channel their self-proclaimed passion for teaching, students are instead a barrier between the main characters and their desires. Students are the grit in the gears, not the institutional raison d’être.
And then, midway through the last episode, at Bill’s final tribunal, Ji-Yoon gives an impassioned speech on the institution’s responsibility to the students.
“Those people, those are our students. Our job is not to trick them or manage them or make them fall in line. Our job is to offer refuge from the bullshit, to level with them. No, no. Why should they trust us? The world is burning and we’re sitting up here worried about our endowment? Our latest ranking on U.S. News & World Report? If you think Bill is a Nazi, then by all means, fire him. But if you’re hoping that just by getting rid of him you’re going to stop what’s going on outside, they’re going to see right through that. What do you think is going to happen when he is fired and nothing changes?”
The speech is both stirring and correct on its merits (IMO), and also utterly divorced from anything that came in the previous five and a half episodes. There is actually nothing we are told or shown about the students to suggest that they are going to see through anything, because we have no idea what students truly think, believe or would do apart from their established role as props for bad stuff happening to the professors.
The season ends with everyone reaffirming their commitment to the institutional mission around teaching. Ji-Yoon declares an intention to stay even after she’s been ousted as chair because she loves teaching so much, and Bill is determined to try to get his teaching job back.
This core mission of teaching has not actually motivated any of the main character’s concerns -- Hambling wants a better office, Rentz (Balaban) wants to be recognized as the intellectual colossus he once was. The chair wants to get the young, Black scholar through the tenure process so she can then get down to real change.
In fact, teaching is almost absent from the entire season, with the exception of some lectures, a 30-second snippet of a discussion in Ji-Yoon’s class, and a brief scene of Yaz McKay’s students performing a Hamilton-like rap about Moby Dick, which is ambiguously framed and could be read as either a critique of a young professor pandering to her students or creative pedagogy. It’s not really clear.
And yet at the end of the show, the thing that is largely absent, teaching, is the cause that brings everyone together in a shared belief in the mission.
As a satire the show fails. To work it would’ve had to consider the perspectives of those who are actually tasked with the mission everyone affirms as meaningful at the end, but who have found it impossible to do. It would need to grapple with the demoralization that has driven so many people out of the academy despite the deep love for the mission that the professors of The Chair claim to revere, but barely do.
I can see why the show didn’t want to go there. Nobody wants to binge a show about people being demoralized. Heck, I get the sense that the people overseeing those who are dropping from demoralization in our real-world system of higher education don’t want to actually grapple with it. Maybe The Chair better reflects reality than I think, just not in a way that it intends. A guy could start to get upset starting to think about such a thing.
But then I reminded myself -- it’s just a TV show.
The best academic satire I saw this weekend was this flowchart that the University of North Carolina has provided in case of instructor exposure to COVID, which makes it clear that the necessity of butts in seats takes priority over all else, including the incapacitation of the instructor.
Reading it, I can hear Slim Pickens start to holler.
 Even lower-tier Ivies don’t experience the kind of enrollment crunch that’s hitting Pembroke.
 We get a glimpse of a sheet that includes student loads and salaries, and honestly, the salaries aren’t that high for people who have been tenured faculty for 35 years. Definitely not even lesser Ivy.
 Duplass has the most perfect rumpled professor hair I’ve ever seen. It inspired deep envy because it’s a look I once thought I should strive for, but without a team of stylists to carefully coif my mane, my attempts were more Sideshow Bob than cool prof.
 Side note: I’ve been re-watching NYPD Blue as my lunchtime low-cognitive-load break, and somehow those guys get the suspects to confess every single episode. Meanwhile, the Law & Order shows almost never get a confession because that show has a bunch of courtroom sets. I have no idea which show is more accurate to police work. It doesn’t matter.
 There could be some dark comedy in it, scenes of the adjunct driving like a Fast and the Furious character trying to get to a gig across town, or a conversation I once overheard between two multi-institution adjuncts debating the relative merits of cost per calorie for prepackaged food. Pop-Tarts for the win.