“The Chair”: A Good Idea Gone to Waste

Late last summer, Netflix released a series called “The Chair,” which many of my colleagues at CSULB were quite enthusiastic about. I, on the other hand, found myself dismayed that such a lackadaisical effort could sustain their attention. Outside of the acting, what was there in fact to justify the praise of critics?

“The Chair” could have been a compelling examination of academic politics (and thereby a reflection of large-scale social conflicts), but the two women (Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman) who came up with the idea for this series utterly failed to investigate their topic.The superficiality of their research was so obvious that I couldn’t bear to watch more than an episode and a half. How could Peet and Wyman not realize that almost every Department of English in this country depends upon the enrollment of creative writing students to keep itself afloat? Where on the faculty depicted in “The Chair” is at least one actress or actor portraying a nationally known fiction writer and a poet? It’s made out to seem as if this “contemporary” Department of English has a faculty consisting only of professors who are throwbacks to the 1950s.

Pray tell, Ms. Peet and Ms. Wyman, where is the creative writing faculty? Now perhaps the creative writing “option” within the English major has taken its show on the curriculum road at this fictional college and been awarded departmental status. If so, then this explanatory backstory involved an academic civil war in which the secessionist faction won a serious turf war. As a result, the Department of Creative Writing will have its own chair, and its own budget, all of which sets up some serious possibilities of dramatic conflict when the chairs of all the departments in the College of Liberal Arts have their weekly meetings with the Dean. I truly can’t figure out why Peet and Wyman didn’t do some basic research.

My guess is that it never occurred to these writers that they needed to do research. They thought “the concept” was enough. Hence, a superficial script that only grows more improbable with each passing moment. The sad part is how easy it would have been for a very fine set of scripts to have left their mark on “the concept.” There are so many other dramatic possibilities that were overlooked that it leaves me shaking my head in disbelief. It was obviously a smart move to cast an Asian-American actress as the chair, but the show revealed little about how “smart” the new chair is. Now it is true that sometimes faculty get tenure with relatively little publication, and from that point they take advantage of the lack of interest in being chair by their colleagues to land the job themselves. I didn’t at all get that career trajectory in “The Chair.” Professor Ji-Yoon Kim seems to be someone who has done a fair amount of scholarship and who still wants to accomplish yet more. Are you telling me that she didn’t feel reluctant to give up (even if for a few years) her research agenda? Does the script give even a hint about the choices Professor Kim has to make to attain this position in academic politics? Didn’t Peet and Wyman ask themselves what percentage of professors who serve as chairs continue to do significant research? The number is all too close to zero, which is about the score I give Peet’s and Wyman’s imagination. I just don’t find the character of Professor Kim believable, and in fact I regard the show as being sufficiently dismissive of Professor Kim’s past academic accomplishments as to suspect “unconscious bias” on the part of the scriptwriters. In “The Chair,” we are given a one-dimensional character whom we are supposed to accept at complete face value. If you enjoy superficial drama, fine. Help yourself. but don’t ask me to sit here and applaud mediocrity.

For a different “take” on “The Chair,” see https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2021-08-20/the-chair-netflix-sandra-oh-amanda-peet

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