The Chair. Six 30-minute episodes. Five stars
I'm a big fan of the American author Jane Smiley, who delightfully skewers American university academia in her book Moo! I wondered if her acerbic takes were just laugh-baiting until I got invited to a university departmental morning tea one day. I had no idea what a microcosm of thwarted ambition, poisoned romances and unstated but innately-felt social strata it would be.
Released in perfect time for our latest lockdown, Netflix fills our empty evenings with this charming six-parter with Sandra Oh as the newly elected chairwoman of the English department of a small middle-American university.
The series is created and written by the actress Amanda Peet and her writing partner Annie Wyman. Peet has been on the verge of big league stardom for years, in noted series like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Good Wife and in big-time films like 2012 and The X Files: I Want to Believe.
Despite her impressive on-camera resume, it is her role behind the camera here as series creator that leaves a sincere resonance.
I initially gave the series a watch because it is produced by the team who gave us the eight years of pop-culture genius that was Game of Thrones, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff. This is the first of undoubtedly many fresh ideas as part of their mega-billion-dollar Netflix deal.
It initially seems a world away from the gore and violence of Game of Thrones, but life in academia is just as cut-throat, with staff angling for recognition and better office space, all while avoiding getting cancelled by their entitled Millennial students.
The Chair keeps the tone light and the pace swift as Dr Ji-Yoon Kim (Oh) juggles the responsibilities of her new job chairing the fictional Pembroke College English Department.
What ought to be a triumphant time for Dr Kim, as both the first female and the first person of colour departmental head, is undermined at every turn.
Breathing down her neck is Dean Larson (David Morse), demanding she do something about the declining admissions and to speed up the retirement of the faculty's three oldest staff, including the militantly unchanging Professor Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Professor Hambling (Holland Taylor).
Hambling is suffering from office real estate FOMO, discovering her office has been moved over the summer to a basement-level space underneath the school gymnasium. Her complaints pile on top of those of her colleagues, the loudest of which belong to Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) .
Whatever pride Yaz has for her friend in her new job is tinged with the angst of wondering how long her position with the university will last, and the insult of having to share teaching responsibilities with Professor Rentz, whose lectures haven't changed in four decades.
Dr Kim has stepped into the departmental chair when her friend and former boss Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) fell apart following the death of his wife, but his return to the lecture hall brings further complications. A throw-away "Sieg Heil" during a lecture on fascism in literature is captured on a student's camera and goes viral, leading students to complain of racism.
Every character and every narrative situation in this well-written comedy enjoys layers, both cringingly recognisable and bitingly parodic. It astutely explores the challenges of dusty academic institutions remaining relevant, of students struggling to understand them, of the increased pressures on workplace relationships. With Dr Kim and her adopted daughter Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla) and father Habi (Ji-yong Lee) it presents layers of delightful complexity and many of the series' memorable laughs.
The actors are brilliant, but notably so is the elegant actress Taylor, unfortunately known for her work on Two and a Half Men and unrecognisable here as a late-career academic seeing the end of her tenure.
Peet and her team have developed a role worthy of Sandra Oh's brilliance. Her character is warm and human and Oh gets to be purely funny. It is a joy to watch and joy has been pretty thin on the ground lately.