‘The Chair’ is a dramedy worthy of a second season: A Review of the new Netflix series

From 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.

Sandra Oh in The Chair, a new Netflix series

The Chair is a notable addition to Netflix’s original series, newly released in August 20, 2021. The six, 30 min. 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 one is the academic chair, the symbol of authority in academia. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, aptly played by Sandra Oh in an astute mix of comedic and realistic fervour, is the first Asian American and woman of colour 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, 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 academic scenes.

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, 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.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Smart People (2008)

Smart people is about ordinary people. But unlike the movie Ordinary People, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also about dysfunctional families, but then again, a look around us can testify that the term “dysfunctional’ has more or less become a cliché, or the norm even. So, the story line and characters in Smart People may well be the story about many of us.  We can relate to their situations, or maybe know someone that’s in similar predicament, smart or dumb.

Smart People

The title is an apparent sarcasm. Coincidentally, in my last post I wrote a review on A Room With A View (2007)…imagine the highly-educated but socially inapt Cecil Vyse now a modern day academic, 30 years older, scruffy, paunchy, and ever grumpier… that’s the main character in this movie, professor Lawrence Wetherhold, vividly portrayed by Dennis Quaid. Wetherhold teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, an expert in Victorian literature.  Like Cecil Vyse, he is smart with ideas, but utterly unfit for human relationships. Or, maybe a more accurate way of looking at it is, he has given up being a nice person. He’s self-absorbed, overbearing, and maybe himself a victim too, let us not judge so harshly, for he is a widower drenched in self-pity, who leaves his wife’s whole wardrobe untouched some years after her passing.

Living with such a character is his teen-aged daughter Vanessa, played by Ellen Page. Repeating her impressive performance as in Juno, Page portrays an over-achieving high school senior, who aims at nothing less than a perfect SAT score. Little does she know that underneath her pragmatic and vigorous academic pursuit and Republican stance are her youthful curiosity and desires. So, when Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), the wayward adopted brother of her father’s veers into their lives, she is whirled into a pool of confusion. Adding to the complexity of the family relationship is Vanessa’s older brother James (Ashton Holmes), who aspires to be a poet but his Dad doesn’t even know it. James lives on campus where Wetherhold teaches. Despite the physical proximity, father and son could never be more alienated and distanced.

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page

All of their lives begin to take a turn when Wetherhold’s car is impounded for illegal parking and he tries to climb over a fence to retrieve his brief case in the car. His toneless middle-aged physique is no match for the 10-foot wire fence, and so he ends up in the ER with a ‘trauma induced seizure’ after he falls over. That’s where he meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). A former student of his, Janet had a crush on him while a student, but due to his harsh marking and pompous air, decided to change her major from literature to biology. Now years later, Janet has the chance to forge a real and meaningful relationship with Wetherfold, a task she soon finds to be too formidable and senseless for anyone in her right mind.

Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker

But isn’t it true…we’re matched up with impossible people at work, deal with obnoxious clients whom we have to serve, live with incompatible housemates, and stuck with eccentric and embarrassing family members… Smart People’s smart screenplay offers us the chance to laugh at ourselves, and empathize with other’s deficiencies and shortfalls. By learning to put up with them, we might just be learning to live with ourselves. And in the process, as the movie happily winds up, the characters gain a new perspective on themselves and come out as changed persons.

Screened at Sundance earlier this year, the film is teamed up by the relatively new screen writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Murro. It is rated R in the U. S. and 14A in Canada. Certain scenes may be objectionable to some. But with watching any movie or reading literature, for that matter, they have to be taken in context, and the overall spirit considered.

And, for those looking for smart aleck humor, or fast-paced sequences and an intriguing plot are bound to be disappointed. However, I have precisely appreciated (Professor Wetherhold would be quick to correct me, it should be “appreciated precisely” he’d say) the slower paced story lines that are well-developed along the main characters. The witty dialogues and superb acting from the stellar cast are enjoyable and engaging. A delightful 95 minutes of quiet and intelligent entertainment.

~ ~ ~ Ripples