Like its premise, Netflix’s “The Chair,” which debuted Friday, is a mix of old and new. It’s a feather-light farce with lazy gags about the dozy elderly and a rumpled but ultra-sincere love interest in fellow professor Bill (Jay Duplass doing his best Mark Ruffalo), but also a timely exploration of how institutions are often resistant toward fresh approaches and diverse candidates, even to their own detriment. Perhaps most unexpectedly, it’s a strikingly specific portrait of an Asian American midlife crisis, with struggles and concerns I’ve never seen tackled in a mainstream series (or the proud tradition of independent Asian American cinema) before.
Here’s where I come clean: Watching the six episodes of “The Chair,” I often felt it was made especially for me. Sure, there’s a generic-Sundance-movie quality to it: A woman trying to have it all — the job, the guy, the affections of a rowdy kid who’s three hugs and a loving talk away from contentment. But as a former literature doctoral student who once considered a career in academia, I, too, am overly accustomed to the phrase “reimagining the humanities.”
Like Ji-Yoon, I am not comfortable with my level of attraction to Jay Duplass, or in her case, a shambling widower who looks exactly like him. And like her, I have an Asian immigrant parent (hers played by Ji-yong Lee) whose grudging respect for my headstrongness doesn’t keep them from constantly commenting on my personal life.
By the time David Duchovny showed up, playing a satirical version of himself who inadvertently threatens Ji-Yoon’s plans to get her protege Yaz (Nana Mensah) tenure — no less while re-creating an iconic poolside scene from “The X-Files” (a show instrumental to my growth as a person and writer) — I was overcome with the suspicion that the Netflix algorithm had cracked my brain open, taken a scan of its contents and was selling pieces of myself back to me, as is the aim of all major tech platforms.
I mention all of this not (solely) for my own narcissistic indulgence, but to point to the fleeting moments of personality and particularity that might be overshadowed by the polished, steady, gentle-as-a-baby’s-yawn result. For a comedy, not a single joke elicited more than a half-smile; for a show that takes seriously the importance of a liberal arts education, it’s awfully dismissive of college students’ potential for critical thinking. During a lecture on fascism and absurdism, a possibly hung over Bill impulsively salutes Hitler as a not-quite-a-joke, not-exactly-a-reference. A rumor that Bill is a neo-Nazi spreads throughout campus — a subplot that can only develop if a “woke” or overly sensitive mob straight out of right-wing nightmares can’t tell apart the difference between an ill-advised instance of a “Heil Hitler” and ideological fealty to a historical figure’s genocidal convictions.
All of that, too, is played for wry if lightly hand-wringing amusement. But while Ji-Yoon is busy trying to get Bill to shape up, the dean (David Morse) would rather she spend her energies convincing several of her highest-paid, lowest-performing professors into forced retirement. Elliot (Bob Balaban), who hasn’t updated his lesson plans in three decades, bristles at the newfangled assignments given out by Yaz, a popular instructor with crowded, racially diverse classes who also happens to be the department’s sole Black professor.
Less antagonistic to Ji-Yoon — though representing no less of a headache — is Joan (Holland Taylor), the department’s first tenured woman professor. The tough skin and aggressive indifference Joan has cultivated to endure that achievement have long since been transferred to her students, resulting in a demotion in office that’s probably deserved, but also undeniably gendered.
To become invested in “The Chair,” you have to care enough about the details of ivory-tower life, to give a hoot about who gets a lectureship or what an instructor’s score is on RateMyProfessors.com. No wonder, then, that the best parts of the miniseries involve Ji-Yoon’s life apart from campus. Having just seen his daughter go off to college, Bill finds solace in babysitting Ji-Yoon’s young child Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla), especially once he’s forced to take leave after Hitlergate. Oh utterly disappears into her role, but she’s especially funny and charming in her scenes with Duplass, their sweater-swaddled professors both sporting romantic clouds of dark curls.
But the best reason to sit through the anemic first four episodes is for the series’ deepening portrayal of a Korean American woman in situations seldom explored in pop culture. It’s rare enough to have an Asian American protagonist with an Asian name like Ji-Yoon — a small but purposeful assertion of non-accommodation. It’s rarer still to encounter Ji-Yoon’s parenting situation: that of an Asian American adoptive mother imparting Korean culture to a resentful daughter who’s more interested in getting in touch with her Mexican roots. Then there’s the uneasy situation that Ji-Yoon, like so many Asian Americans in elite workplaces, finds herself in — more accepted by White gatekeepers than their Black or Brown counterparts, their proximity to power and leadership then interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as political complacency.
Creators Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, an Asian American scholar and screenwriter, maintain a delicate touch with the smaller cultural details — like the cross that hangs in Ji-Yoon’s home, they’re unobtrusive if you’re not looking for them, and hearteningly familiar if you are.
The penultimate chapter, set mostly at Duchovny’s lavish vacation house and a Korean celebration of a child’s first birthday, is the series highlight, solidifying the lines of grief and tribute that connect Ju Ju to Ji-Yoon to her own deceased mother. “Why are you a doctor?” asks Ju Ju of Ji-Yoon at one point. “You never help anybody.” By the end, Ji-Yoon discovers the many different ways there are to save those around her — and when it’s time to let someone else shoulder the burden.
The Chair (six episodes) is streaming now on Netflix.