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In Netflix’s ‘The Chair,’ Sandra Oh is on the hot seat

From left: Sandra Oh, Nana Mensah, and Holland Taylor in "The Chair."ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX

Pembroke College, the fictional setting of Netflix’s new series “The Chair,” is locked in the past. It’s the classic stagnant American institution, a “lumbering dinosaur,” as David Morse’s dean puts it. Portraits of old white men hang throughout its hallowed halls, where a young Black English professor can’t seem to get tenure despite the popularity and relevance of her classes.

When the show opens, Sandra Oh’s Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim has just become the first woman and the first person of color to serve as the chair of the English Department. She is filled with positive energy and pride as she looks at the new nameplate on her door, announcing her historic ascension.


So: Problem solved?

Of course not. She sits down at her desk and the chair — get it? — collapses under her. And the rest of the six half-hour episodes of this enjoyable but uneven show give us Ji-Yoon in a desperate struggle to update the curriculum, hire new blood, fire old blood, address student complaints, care for her 7-year-old daughter, and somehow remain humane. She becomes a Ping-Pong ball, knocked back and forth between the stuffy, insecure, and tenured teachers and a heartless administration trying to save money. Meanwhile, she gets caught up in a cancel-culture nightmare, after a clip goes viral featuring bad-boy English prof and grieving widower Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) giving a Nazi salute as a drunken joke. The students are outraged and feel unheard.

The problems Ji-Yoon faces are deeply embedded in Pembroke, and, as we quickly learn, they cannot be easily solved by one job appointment. There are only early glimmerings of change at Pembroke, and the onus is on Ji-Yoon and not her sedentary colleagues. Now that she’s the chair, she’s on the hot seat. The irony is that the reason she’s at Pembroke in the first place — her love of and passion for literature, in particular Emily Dickinson — has become a secondary matter, a luxury, as she fights to fix the chaos created by others and a system badly disfigured.


Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, the show obviously dips into issues of sexism, racism, and white privilege, but it remains light on its feet — too light, at times. “The Chair” is about the difficulties facing higher education, but it’s primarily a comedy, and a brisk one at that. So it often breezes through the kinds of cultural, social, and romantic mires that deserve a more thorough treatment. Bill’s cancellation, for example, is so rushed that, when it’s more or less over, it feels diminished. It could have served as the dominant plot for an entire season. And the choice to add an attraction between Ji-Yoon and Bill only complicates a story line for which there isn’t enough time.

Jay Duplass and Sandra Oh in "The Chair."ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX

Some of the old professors are the sources of mocking humor, as they make the most money and attract the fewest students to their classes. Bob Balaban’s Elliot Rentz is a smug fellow who is dismissive of any efforts to make literature relevant and who is disgusted when his Black colleague, Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), encourages students to tweet their favorite passages from “Moby-Dick.” But at least one member of the old guard is treated generously: Holland Taylor’s Joan Hambling, a longtime victim of academic sexism. She is a dogged survivor, which, at one point, means tracking down a student who keeps knocking her on RateMyProfessors.com. Taylor steals her scenes brilliantly, as she refuses to go gently.


Oh is just right, in some ways, as our heroine. She has an appealingly frazzled demeanor and telling eyes, as she juggles her own and other people’s troubles. She’s best in the family scenes — particularly with Ji-Yoon’s adopted Mexican daughter, who, in another strand that could have used more time, is confused about her ethnic identity. But she doesn’t quite click in the mutual-attraction scenes with Bill; I didn’t sense any chemistry between the actors. It doesn’t help that Bill is the kind of self-indulgent campus icon who leaves messes wherever he goes. It’s hard to understand her fight, as Bill’s boss, to untangle her emotional inclinations toward him; he’s unworthy of them.


Starring: Sandra Oh, Jay Duplass, Holland Taylor, Bob Balaban, Nana Mensah, David Morse, Everly Carganilla

On: Netflix. Available Friday.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.