By Diana Cheng
AAP Film and Arts Writer
From her role as Dr. Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy to Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, chair of Pembroke University’s English Department, Sandra Oh has proven to be an effective voice for inclusion in the entertainment industry.
“The Chair” is a notable addition to Netflix’s original series, newly released in August 20, 2021. The six, 30-minute episodes pack subject matters that are relevant in academia and society today. So, if you feel it has not fully delved into such issues, I hope a second season would allow it to elaborate.
The most obvious subject is the academic chair, the symbol of authority in academia. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, aptly played by Oh in an astute mix of comedic and realistic fervour, is the first Asian American and woman of color to chair the English Department of Pembroke University, a second tier liberal arts college striving to remain relevant. Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim’s obstacles are duly multiplied just because of who she is, a woman English professor of Korean ancestry.
When talking with Yaz (Nana Mensah), a young, black woman faculty whom Ji-Yoon wants to appoint as distinguished lecturer, Ji-Yoon says, “when I first started, it was like ‘why some Asian lady teaching Emily Dickinson?’”
Ji-Yoon’s troubles are manifold. Enrolment in the English Department has dropped more than 30%, budget has been chopped substantially, and many of the 87% white male faculty have long passed the borderline of retirement. Ji-Yoon’s department is striving to recover its raison d’être. Her own daughter Ju Ju asks her, “Why are you a doctor? You never help anybody.” A question must have lodged in many a minds.
As for Ju Ju, a role superbly played by Everly Carganilla, she’s a heart-breaker. Ji-Yoon faces single-parenthood with added difficulties as Ju Ju is an adopted daughter of Hispanic heritage. Mother-daughter bond doesn’t come easily, especially with an intelligent and challenging child. Ji-Yoon has no other childminding support other than her reluctant Korean father. The traditional Korean family event (E5) where a baby chooses her future career is interesting and adds spice to the series as the other episodes mainly depict scenes of academia. More ethnocultural storylines could liven-up overall.
Characters are realistic, albeit in a comedy it’s expected to see overly dramatized ones like Bill (Jay Duplass), too stoned or drunk to remember he has a class to teach. His excuse, he’s still recovering from the loss of his wife from illness, and a daughter who has just gone away for college and has no intention to return. The class he teaches, Death and Modernism, draws a full capacity all because of his popularity… but not for long.
As a comedy, the writing isn’t your LOL funny type. The humour, especially on the ripe old professors, tends towards cliché. Nevertheless, the writing is interesting, especially when they try to include literary allusions into the dialogues. Knowing T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock just might enhance one’s enjoyment.
Overall, a subject matter that’s long due and a new series that deserves many more seasons to come.