Sandra Oh’s face registers anger or pain sometimes as irritation. As if, in Killing Eve, in Grey’s Anatomy, and now in The Chair, her character deserves to not feel either anger or pain — an irritation with circumstances and people who have the power to make her feel these ugly emotions. As Ji-Yoon, the Chair of the English Department at the fictitious Pembroke University, the first woman and person of colour to ever take the position, she’s suddenly thrust into ugly circumstances beyond her control, and the frown lines collect — ageing colleagues with dwindling enrollment but the highest paychecks, younger colleagues who use the word “Sex” in their course title brimming with enrollments and even waitlists, waiting to be hawked off by Yale or other universities, a dean who runs the school like a corporate entity with eyes on the bottom line, and a lover, also a colleague, the rockstar Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) who is throwing himself off the metaphoric cliff, grieving his dead wife and now, his empty nest as his daughter left for Columbia. (The chair also has a more literal meaning — the chair she sits on in her office which breaks the moment she sits on it. She uses a crate instead, for the time being. What happens next, we are not told.)
On the personal front, Ji-Yoon has a daughter Ju Ju, Mexican by birth, adopted by her as a single mother. Ju Ju, with her Hello Kitty bedspreads and soft toy — traumatizing her Korean grandfather because it is produced by a Japanese company Sanrio, triggering memories of World War 2 — knows she is adopted and has a very violent reaction, drawing macheted mothers and speaking of grief, penises, and breastfeeding with the same inquisitive certainty. Ju Ju’s grandfather speaks only in Korean, pretending to not know English, Ju Ju’s mother responds mostly in English, while Ju Ju pretends to not know Korean, somewhat like Jane in Jane The Virgin asking and responding in English to her grandmother who only asks and responds in Spanish. It is always interesting to see how people of colour in American television share in their culture, one that gets hyphenated and thus complicated by America’s cultural flattening tendencies.
The central conflict of the 6-part series is Professor Dobson — who has the intensity of John Keating from Dead Poets Society beaten down by life and grief — making a Heil Hitler joke, which gets snapped and shared across social media’s circulatory tracts without context, and soon he is is called a Nazi, and things snowball into a discussion on dissent, the swift ease with which students take to issues, all while the humanities as a discipline is getting increasingly sidelined to engineering, computer science, and economics.
Co-created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, who received her Ph.D. in English from Harvard, the short episodes, and the small number of episodes means that not all arcs get an ending they deserve or that feel like endings at all. Issues are set up but are not fleshed out. The older professor — an old white man — thinks the younger one — a young black woman — is pandering to her class. I agreed with him — she is mostly seen in class eliciting one-two word responses from her students, “Racism” “White Supremacy” without context or explanation, or making them perform literature Hamilton-style — but not his rancour and resentment towards her. The show is unable to distinguish between these two — her pandering and his rancour. Similarly, the whole arc given to Ji-Yoon reeks of rush — that they just wanted to wrap up the drama, give her joy, however constrained, however if-ed-and-but-ed.
Similarly with love — for poetry, but also for people. When Ji-Yoon tries to push the dishevelled Professor Dobson (whom Ji-Yoon’s father calls a “crumpled man”) away by saying he is grieving and they shouldn’t hook up, he is unfazed, “If I am grieving, why do I have a raging boner?” The relationship between grieving past love and inviting future love is achieved too quickly, without the required doubts. Much like that, Ji-Yoon’s relationship with poetry and literature has a very tacked-on impulse. In the end, she looks happy discussing and eliciting responses about Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers”, but that was one of the first moments where we felt, truly felt, that she wants to be in a classroom — and that too we learn only at the very end. Till then it is all theoretical — she explains her love of teaching, her father noting how she picked up the pencil as a toddler, symbolizing her lifelong pursuit of teaching. Nothing feels final because nothing is set up as final — the edges feel crumbling even as the show closes.
But these are issues you walk out of the show with. While watching it, there is such a splendid momentum, coasting from one clipped episode to the next in an effortless binge, because these characters are funny, tragic, reckless, known, and all of it is performed with such compelling sympathy that barring the dean, you just want to make sure they land on their feet.
But one thing I wished the show took on with more clarity was “The Death Of The Humanities”. It is something that has been on the headlines for a few years now, the dip in enrollments, the lack of funding. The fact that rigour of the discipline has been replaced by performances, student monologues, and slam poetry — all shown as romantic, beautiful, powerful, necessary — is further testament to the pandering that has become education. It is not to say that literature cannot have performances and tweets — it must — but that it cannot be only built around the solipsistic impulses of students.