Sandra Oh in a frumpy coat with her wonderfully curly hair puffed up is Hollywood catnip. I don’t know why Oh can never have a well-fitted trench, but she’s legally prohibited. The more functional and disheveled the coat, the better.
The industry trend holds true as Sandra Oh dons a lovely Lands’ End toggle wool jacket in “The Chair,” a comedy-drama set at a fictional Ivy League school.
Debilitatingly funny and touching, “The Chair” essentializes higher education: overworked teacher’s assistants, anxious students, professors in crisis, the politics of tenure. The show lovingly documents the current state of academia through the story of one recently promoted department chair.
Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh, “Grey’s Anatomy”) enters as the English department is in decline. Enrollment is down, and the department’s aging professors can’t relate to or retain students. Gifted a desk plate that is endearingly inscribed with “fucker in charge of you fucking fucks,” Ji-Yoon is tasked with whipping the department into shape.
However, Ji-Yoon is first and foremost an educator, and not equipped to spar with administration politically. When upper management demands she get three older professors to resign, Ji-Yoon scrambles to modernize the professors’ syllabi. But her efforts lead to more confusion and unhappy peers.
At home, Ji-Yoon lives alone with her adopted daughter Juju (Everly Carganilla, “Yes Day”). Scenes with Juju anchor the series and provide a much-needed relief from wood-paneled offices. But the domestic scenes do more than contrast the elite, academic setting. Instead, home scenes substantiate the show’s ultimate thesis about being overwhelmed. Through interweaving the personal and the professional, “The Chair” understands Ji-Yoon as a multifaceted individual: a busy mother, a daughter, an employee and a friend.
Ji-Yoon often has to drop her daughter off at her elderly Korean father’s house. The interplay between Juju, Ji-Yoon and her grandfather Habi (Ji-Yong Lee, “Righteous Ties”) is absolutely fantastic and wholesome. Some of the funniest and most touching moments feature Juju, hilarious and frighteningly self-composed, contrasted with Habi and his constant bewilderment. Habi easily makes the list of top five television grandparents. Characters like Juju and Habi justify The Atlantic heralding “The Chair” as “Netflix’s best drama in years.”
But in the end, overcommitted and spread too thin, Ji-Yoon finds herself constantly unprepared to show up in a satisfactory way for the people she cares about.
And that’s the show. “The Chair” is about professional disappointment: negotiating wins and losses, taking responsibility for thoughtlessness. But unlike other workplace TV shows that glorify the grind and hard work, “The Chair” presents a startlingly simple solution to the impossible Gordian knot of professional obligation and personal responsibility: quit.
No one person has all the hours in the day to be a leader, an attentive mother, a good friend and a teacher. Throughout the series, no matter how much harder Ji-Yoon tries, and despite her brilliance and her willingness to compromise, the reality is that Ji-Yoon is unhappy trying to fulfill her obligations.
The show’s thesis is bolstered by its lucid understanding of academia’s contradictions. One might adore the cold snap of winter and trekking across a quad immersed in literature, but no gamely exploration of Chaucer with a passionate professor can paste over students’ keen awareness of how wrong and broken the world is. The show resists the urge to make ivory tower politics seem absurd or the result of “snowflake undergrads” in need of “reality checks.”
How relevant is an English degree when the California state forests are burning? How can college campuses serve as both a vanguard of liberalism and theoretical thought while simultaneously being capitalist institutions that invest in Big Oil?
The conflicts Ji-Yoon faces are all outgrowths of the turbulent present and higher education’s contradictions. “The Chair” doesn’t reconcile or directly respond to these questions, but instead validates them as queries. In a true collegiate fashion, the show says: “Great question, does anyone else have thoughts?”
Managing Arts Editor Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at email@example.com.