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the chair-jay duplass-sandra oh.png

‘The Chair’ is Unwilling to Acknowledge Its Greatest Adversary

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | September 10, 2021 |

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | September 10, 2021 |

the chair-jay duplass-sandra oh.png

(spoilers for Netflix’s The Chair ahead)

The recently released Netflix series, The Chair, has received a lot of buzz amongst those within academic circles. Much of this is due to some of the hair-pulling accuracy of institutional politics and demoralizing budget cuts, especially for the humanities. Dustin’s recent review gave a nice overview of the series, noting its swift pace and the stress that accompanies so many of its comedic moments. It definitely made me laugh (Holland Taylor practically steals the show), and Sandra Oh is such an unwaveringly strong performer that I couldn’t stop watching even if I wanted to, which I certainly did at times. Because as the series goes on, I began to realize that my perspective on one major facet of the show diverged wildly from what was being asserted onscreen. Once I made it to the finale, the tiny flame of hope that the writers would acknowledge the huge trap the show had fallen into was well and truly extinguished. When the credits finally rolled, I was left feeling sour. There are a few missteps in this series, but none nearly so big as its total unwillingness to recognize its biggest heel:

Bill Dobson.

Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) is the rock star professor of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University. A former novelist who saw a measure of success, he’s long since been tenured at this institution that provides him with a comfortably lengthy leash thanks to the high enrollment rate of his classes. This is what we’re told, at least. There’s little opportunity to observe his strengths in the classroom, as our introduction to Bill consists of him going on a drinking spree in an airport. It’s certainly a way to frame a character who’s clearly Going Through Something, though it immediately seemed off-kilter that a person who pisses in a parking lot, followed by stealing a maintenance golf cart only to then crash it at an airport in the United States, where I can’t even get a container of frozen sofrito past airport security without a gloved hand traveling up and around my various crevices, manages to wake up in bed with no consequences beyond a hangover and the inconvenience of not having his car in the driveway.

Despite this unappealing introduction, I was still unable to anticipate the litany of hijinks ahead. Everything from Bill stealing a parked scooter on the street to phoning it in at his job, yet we’re supposed to find him charming and root for him due to the pain he’s in. Yes, his grief for his recently deceased wife is enormous and cause for sympathy. But with his insistent half-assing of his job—a syllabus with weeks’ worth of “TBD,” an unwillingness to bother remembering the course name—the word “flawed” hardly begins to describe him. Although flawed characters make for good drama, Bill Dobson is already tiresome three quarters of the way through the first episode as his superior, Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh), who spends far too much of the series bending over backward for him (more on that later), proceeds to tell him to get his shit together, only for him to laugh her off before becoming defensive. All of this is even before his bright idea to mimic a Nazi salute, brief as it was, in the classroom, made worse by his inept handling of the situation. But we, the audience, are expected to support him alongside Ji-Yoon because he’s lost and depressed. You know who wouldn’t be allowed to be subsumed by grief to the point that their job performance goes all to hell?

Yasmin McKay.

Yasmin (Nana Mensah) is the sole Black faculty member in Pembroke’s English department, a woman who, despite the fact that she has long deserved tenure, still struggles for the professional recognition she deserves. She’s treated as an underling by her older colleagues and disregarded by the dean (David Morse doing a pitch perfect job playing a huge jerk). As the only other faculty member of color and the new department chair, Ji-Yoon takes up for Yaz, rightly believing her to be deserving of the Distinguished Lectureship title, along with acquiring tenure status. If this was the main thrust of the series, The Chair would be in an amazing position to dive deep into the immense difficulties of being women of color in the already challenging world of academia. We would see Yaz working three times harder than any of her white colleagues while receiving half of the recognition. Ji-Yoon would struggle to revamp the department, but at the end of the day, the two would prove successful, allowing the series to end on a hopeful note.

Unfortunately, series creators Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman don’t possess the range to make a show that concentrates on women of color, opting instead to make everything about the grown “crumpled” man who is the architect of nearly all of his problems. Even Ji-Yoon, the series lead who has a range of issues—her struggles with being a single mother to her unique and inquisitive young daughter, Ju-Hee or “JuJu” (Everly Carganilla), and the challenges of transracial adoption is the most emotionally gratifying aspect of the show—centers most of her life around Bill. After receiving a number of frantic messages and missed calls from Bill’s teaching assistant, Lila (Mallory Low), Ji-Yoon finally gets around to calling her back, only to immediately cut her off and hang up the phone when Bill storms into her office. Lila (who is, it’s worth noting, also a person of color) clearly had something extremely urgent to say, so the fact that her emergency is set aside for whatever it is Bill wanted to say is the first of what winds up being Ji-Yoon’s many bad decisions throughout the series.

When Bill’s career winds up in serious jeopardy as his salute (out of context though it may be) goes viral on social media, she flings herself in front of him like a human shield. The fact that she takes the situation more seriously than he does is a mockery of her struggle, but aside from her occasional anger at him, nothing deeper comes of this dynamic. On top of that, he doesn’t take her position as chair seriously, any semblance of professionalism sacrificed for a whinging rom-com yearning. It’s supposed to be cute, but it’s so disrespectful that it only makes him more contemptible. Bill’s relationship with JuJu is a point in his favor, though operating as an ad hoc babysitter doesn’t make the rest of his actions any more forgivable, especially when he rarely ever expresses remorse for them. When Bill makes an already-bad situation worse, earning himself a suspension in the process, he falls into a depression. Does he take this time to reevaluate his situation to better himself? Absolutely not. Instead, he goes on yet another bender and, appallingly, disrupts a one-year old’s birthday party with many of Ji-Yoon’s extended friends and family in attendance before collapsing during the ceremony.

In the final episode, Bill makes a big ‘romantic’ overture (despite the fact that he’s an utter mess) declaring that should he be terminated, a large settlement will likely be coming to him, paving the way for Bill and Ji-Yoon to start over again elsewhere. Though briefly tempted, Ji-Yoon confides that he’s likely to be fired, resulting in him doing a complete 180 and becoming infuriated while placing the blame on her. If audacity was an ocean, Bill would have the Pacific resting in his pocket. Bill is finally terminated from Pembroke, despite Ji-Yoon making one final attempt to shield him despite the fact she should know better by now. He’s let go with a substantial pay off, while Ji-Yoon is stripped of her title as chair (a blessing in disguise for her, to be certain). With the denouement, it seems as though there is some balance restored in Ji-Yoon’s world and even though there isn’t a happy ending per se (Yaz should have left for Yale), it’s a satisfying conclusion nonetheless.

Until Bill returns and declares his intention to fight for his job back.

I would say this is when the show betrays itself, but with the kid glove handling of Bill the whole way, it’s clear that the series never intended to make him an example of what’s wrong with university culture. In fact, the writers work overtime to portray him as a victim of that very environment. For a moment, I believed that after his termination, Bill would find himself in another profession, becoming an editor or something publishing adjacent, living with the consequences of his actions, but ultimately being fine. He insists his continued fight is due to his love of teaching, despite his willingness to walk away from the profession without hesitation several scenes ago. This isn’t just inconsistent, it’s in direct opposition to the message the series spent so much time trying to convey.

Earlier in the season, Bill argues with Ji-Yoon, insisting he’s not a Nazi before she gets to the crux of the matter: “This is not about whether you’re a Nazi, it’s about whether you’re one of those men who, when something like this happens, thinks he can dust himself off and walk away without any f***ing sense of consequence.” Except that’s exactly what happens. Although one can argue that the true adversary here is how racism and misogyny operate within higher ed, the willful ignorance of a system that steadfastly refuses to change despite the constant lip service is exemplified within the character of Bill Dobson. His unwillingness to accept the consequences of his actions, choosing instead to fight for his job back, isn’t the least bit hopeful; it’s only another example of how the world must navigate the consequences of a man, a teacher, no less, who absolutely refuses to learn.

Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t resisting the urge to take Sandra Oh’s picture to the hair salon (it’s too high maintenance for you, Rivera, stop it), she can be found on Twitter here.