Review: Academic follies, cultural heat and romance mix in 'The Chair'

Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass star in Netflix series about a new department head at a prestigious university.

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

No one is too comfortable in “The Chair.”

Certainly not Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the first woman and person of color to become chair of the English department at prestigious and stuffy Pembroke University. Her colleagues tend to be older white males, often with dwindling class sizes and overblown senses of self-worth. Word from the top is these geriatric cases will soon get the axe and Ji-Yoon will be the one who has to swing it.

Jay Duplass and Sandra Oh in "The Chair."

Also uncomfortable are Ji-Yoon’s female compatriots. Yaz (Nana Mensah), a Black professor popular with students, feels her career slipping away, while the veteran Joan (Holland Taylor), who refuses to read student evaluations, finds herself in a dank office beneath the gym.

And then there’s Bill (Jay Duplass), a popular professor mourning his wife’s passing a year back, still messed up and messing up. Ji-Yoon is suppressing her feelings for him, staying at the good-buddy-who’s-wounded stage. Further complicating things is Ji-Yoon’s rebellious young adopted daughter, JuJu (Everly Carganilla).

So everything’s already awkward when Bill stumbles into class one day, mistakenly projects a picture of his naked wife in front of the class and then performs a Nazi salute while discussing fascism. It’s the modern world, so of course students capture the salute on their phones.

Uh-oh. Suddenly Bill and Ji-yoon are in the center of a cancel culture storm.

“The Chair” wrestles lightly with all this. Careers may be at stake, livelihoods threatened and controversies examined but the key here is the relationship between Ji-Yoon and Bill, and Oh and Duplass have casual chemistry to spare. 

Creators Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman keep the show loose enough for cute side storylines — David Duchovny! — but never let things wander aimlessly. With six quick episodes they offer a glimpse at the absurdities of modern academic life and cultural sensitivities, while also dancing on romantic comedy notes. Nice.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

“The Chair”