The plight of women is top of the agenda in Netflix's The Chair.
The comedy-drama stars Sandra Oh (Killing Eve, Grey's Anatomy) as Yi-Joon, the new chair of the English department at a prestigious US university, and the first woman in the college's history to be appointed as such. But her moment of glory is quickly overshadowed.
Yi-Joon's faculty is in disarray, an "incident" involving her colleague and friend Bill (Transparent's Jay Duplass) threatens to sink her own career, and her relationship with her young daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla) is fraught with challenges. There is barely a moment of respite for our protagonist, but no one does flustered and frazzled better than Oh, who is as authentic and engaging as ever.
Across its six episodes, The Chair highlights the onslaught of obstacles faced by women – and those specific to Black, Asian and minority ethnic women – within academia and beyond.
There's the gender pay gap, being overlooked for senior positions and the best opportunities, sacrificing career for family, departmental service falling disproportionally on female staff, and the fact that there are fewer women in the ranks. If you're of Asian descent, Black or indeed any other ethnicity than white, all of the above is amplified further. The dialogue during those moments does, on occasion, smack you over the head, but there's really no need for such heavy-handedness. The injustice speaks for itself.
But kudos to co-creators Amanda Peet (Dirty John) and Annie Julia Wyman for utilising half-hour episodes of telly as a Trojan horse to pack so much in. The aforementioned roster of inequality isn't a work of fiction but a reality, and until we reach parity right here, in the real world, those stories will always need a home.
One of the other central themes is motherhood. Yi-Joon is a single parent and as TV and film are wont to do, she isn't thriving but floundering as she desperately tries to steady the ship both at work and at home. There will be single parents who nod along knowingly, but pop culture is still awfully light on female characters who are coping while running a household solo. There's enough room to depict both sides of the coin, but one has undoubtedly dominated proceedings.
Yi-Joon is Ju Ju's adoptive mother, which breathes some new life into that trope and gives their relationship an interesting and complex dynamic. You can see the cogs turning in Ju Ju's mind as she attempts to construct her own identity and comprehend her place in the world, but so often her inability to do that – understandable at any age, but especially as a child – is converted into an acute frustration and fury, with Yi-Joon dealt the heaviest blows. The library of thorny mother-daughter relationships depicted on-screen is a crowded market, but The Chair holds its own within that space, which is a credit to both the writing and the performances of Oh and Carganilla.
A nod must also go to Holland Taylor, who has a whale of a time as Professor Joan Hambling and demonstrates why she's been in the business for 50 years. Taylor has been gifted the series' best comedic material and she doesn't waste a single drop. And even during moments of farce and melodrama, she manages to imbue Joan's erratic behaviour with a legitimacy that keeps her grounded, rather than spiralling into a running gag. It's no small feat, but Taylor makes it look effortless.
The ratio of comedy to drama throughout The Chair is calibrated to a tee. There are moments of real emotional heft, which are given ample room to breathe, but its key players are never permitted to wallow themselves into oblivion. It knows when to change gear and add some levity to proceedings, which keeps the narrative moving and ensures that viewers remain sympathetic to the characters and their respective burdens. In a different pair of hands and with a lesser cast, that tone switch could easily have fallen flat, but the comedy is used to supplement rather than mock or discredit, which exhibits a mastery of the craft.
With the story left wide open for a second season, this is one Netflix series that deserves the greenlight.
The Chair will be available to stream on Netflix from Friday, August 20.
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