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The Chair Review: Sandra Oh Shines as a Frazzled Professor Faced with Societal Challenges

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College campuses across the nation have come under scrutiny of late as safe spaces become the norm and intellectual discussion and disparate views suffer from an overly charged political atmosphere.

In Netflix’s comedy, The Chair, there are plenty of isms on the Pembroke University campus, but the campus hopes to address many in one fell swoop with promotions, demotions, and reevaluating curriculum.

Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) benefits from her hard work with a promotion to English department Chair, but she soon wonders if the sacrifice is worth it.

It’s not easy to address social ills, let alone the nuisances that arise on college campuses, but showrunner, writer, and executive producer Amanda Peet proves herself quite adept at writing believable conflict.

You might not expect a comedy to address such weighty issues as racism, sexism, and ageism, but the tone allows for a more authentic discussion than we might get if merely pushing an agenda was the plan.

Ji-Yoon steps into her new role only to be faced with crises of the highest order, in part thanks to the financial frustrations faced by Dean Larson (David Morse).

A good portion of her staff is elderly and white, and as their classes are abandoned by students for trendier and less traditional educators, including Black teacher Yaz McKay, cutting the long-term professors loose is financially sound.

That leaves tenured Professors Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) and Elliott Rentz (Bob Balaban) fighting for their careers and dignity as they’re pushed aside and out of the spotlight.

Joon-Yi isn’t only standing up for her former coworkers with the hope that they’ll all sail through the departmental changes relatively unscathed and better for it, but when her dear friend Bill (Jay Duplass) finds himself mired in scandal, she’s torn between her roles as Chair and friend with how to handle it.

Things aren’t any easier with Joon-Yi’s home life.

Her adopted daughter, Juju (Everly Carganilla), puts Joon-Yi through the paces of race and what it means to be family when you don’t look alike or share the same heritage.

Whether she’s a surgeon, an MI-6 agent, or a departmental Chair, Oh does frazzled better than anyone.

Joon-Yi leans on foul language and sarcasm to get her through the day with an endearing quality that only Oh could pull off.

Taylor has a career-topping role with Joan and Joan’s biting commentary on how women, white or not, have been passed over for decades by their male counterparts, often holding onto their jobs only because they’re the go-to for fundraisers, domestic duties, and secretarial work.

Joon-Yi feels all of it at her core. She’s an independent and opinionated Asian woman who commiserates on every level. That could be her saving grace or her downfall.

While the excellent cast upholds their end of the bargain, the writing tosses even the most unlikely candidates into the fire line.

Bill believes himself to be free from complaint until an off-handed remark becomes the hill he wants to die on defending his record, and Duplass is terrific as the blindsided professor.

By raising all of these challenges in a college setting, Peet strips away politics and gets down to the common sense root of issues plaguing academia and the world at large.

As such, The Chair appeals to everyone despite its sometimes controversial topics and its comedic approach, while rarely laugh-out-loud funny, tempers the mood for a worthwhile examination of what our society has become on and off college campuses.

With episodes that weigh in at about 30 minutes each, it’s a quick and entertaining binge-watch.

Since social media will be abuzz with discussion about it, you should make plans to watch the weekend it drops.

The Chair premieres on Friday, August 20, only on Netflix.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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