As Sandra Oh's Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim strides through the campus of Pembroke University, the fictional "lower-tier Ivy" that serves as the setting of Netflix's new comedy The Chair, she carries herself like someone who runs the place. And, technically, she does, at least the part of Pembroke that's home to the English department, where Ji-Yoon has just been appointed chair, the first woman ever to hold that position. As she leans back at her desk, a feeling of power and accomplishment spreads across her face. It won't last past the first department meeting.
If Ji-Yoon wasn't previously aware of the problems threatening to undo Pembroke's English department, she soon finds them impossible to ignore. Declining enrollment threatens the future of the department as a whole and she's asked to let loose a clutch of aging professors who can't seem to draw more than a handful of students to their classes in particular. These include Joan (Holland Taylor), an already embittered medievalist enraged by the decision to move her office to dreary basement space beneath the gym, and Elliot (Bob Balaban), a specialist in 19th and early 20th century American literature who watches in dismay as his younger, more innovative colleague Yasmin's (Nana Mensah) "Sex and the Novel" lectures packs them in.
Then there's Bill (Jay Duplass), who hasn't been the same since his wife died but whose off-the-rails behavior has almost reached the point where grief can no longer work as an excuse. Even Bill's daughter, shortly before leaving for college, advises him to get his "shit together." Complicating matters: Ji-Yoon has feelings for Bill that she hasn't quite worked through, and at least some of them might be tied to Bill's ability to work wonders with her difficult adopted daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla). Nonetheless, Bill, unlike many of his graying colleagues, remains popular with students -- at least until a fateful lecture in which he mockingly makes a Nazi salute and says "Heil Hitler" goes viral and makes him a flashpoint of controversy.
Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman (a writer who holds a PhD on jokes from Harvard), with Peet serving as showrunner (and Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss serving as executive producers), The Chair uses that act of unintentional provocation as a chance to explore the long-extant prejudices and 21st century challenges of academia, from the humanities' seeming need to justify its existence in the digital age to glass ceilings that leave a lot of sharp objects laying around after they get shattered.
It's a lot for a series to take on and at times The Chair can seem as frazzled as Ji-Yoon as she jumps from one crisis, personal or professional, to the next. While that sometimes makes the six-episode series feel unfocused, it also allows it to entertain a variety of points of view. The inciting controversy might be absurd on its face -- an ill-chosen moment obviously taken out of context that doesn't reflect Bill's point of view -- but the series doesn't treat the students upset by it as misguided PC scolds. The incident taps into a real sense of discontent arising from an institution in the habit of ignoring the voices of students and faculty of color and marginalizing women. In one scene, an enraged Joan details a career defined by condescension, sexism, and struggle and The Chair doesn't treat her history as a vestige of long-ago past. As a satire, The Chair can be all over the place, but it brings a sense of nuance to the issues it takes on, even if it seldom stays focused on any of them all that long.
Fortunately, satire's only part of what The Chair has to offer. Its world of academics whose deep knowledge does little to protect them from making bad decisions recalls Wonder Boys, Richard Russo's Straight Man, and the novels of David Lodge. It's set in a messy world where deeply flawed characters do little to make it less messy.
Oh makes for a fantastic anchor, playing Ji-Yoon as a woman just barely keeping it together between the demands of single parenthood and a job that demands her to take control of a situation that was already spiraling into chaos before she took over and staying afloat as that spiraling takes her to some unexpected places (including an episode built around a self-deprecating guest spot from a famous actor whose identity is probably best left unspoiled). She's nicely matched by Duplass as a man with seemingly no interest in reining in chaos -- a choice that seemingly only heightens the attraction between them.
They're joined by a deeply stocked cast that's served well by The Chair's instinct to treat all the story's players with empathy. Balaban plays Elliot as a man who may not understand the changes sweeping through his industry but who still has something to offer. Even if he's baffled by Yasmin's approach, and sometimes seemingly determined to drive her out rather than adapt, he's still capable of change. Taylor's a particular standout. Although her subplot, one in which a student who leaves repeated bad reviews of her on a professor-ranking site, sometimes feels shoehorned in, Taylor makes a meal of scenes that let her cut loose in anger without losing a sense of Joan's vulnerability.
It's unclear if we'll get more of The Chair -- the first fruit of a production deal between Netflix and the Game of Thrones team of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss -- beyond these six episodes, which tell a complete story and leave few loose ends, but more would be welcome. As a narrative and a send-up of academia, it's sometimes distractingly loose and ultimately anti-climactic (though it still finds ways to end each episode on a note that almost demands viewers press on right away). But as a rich world stocked with endearingly messed-up characters fumbling their way through some hard choices, it's tough to resist.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
The Chair premiered Friday, Aug. 20 on Netflix.