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Maybe it’s a sign of how hard up we are for a certain stripe of delicately witty drama that Netflix’s The Chair made me feel like spontaneously applauding from the sofa cushions.
Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, in six spry half-hour episodes, The Chair stars Sandra Oh as Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, the first female chair of a struggling English department at Pembroke University. She’s told: “If anyone can bring Pembroke into the 21st century, it’s you.” Less positively, student enrolments are plummeting, older lecturers have been placed on a hitlist, and the talented black colleague (Nana Mensah) whom Ji-Yoon tries to promote is not so subtly blocked: “She doesn’t want to teach them, she wants to hang out with them,” carps an out-of-vogue academic, played by Bob Balaban. Meanwhile, the colleague Ji-Yoon is romantically drawn to, Bill (Jay Duplass), a joint-smoking widower in a Joy Division T-shirt, is struggling to the point that Ji-Yoon’s father chides her in Korean for “pining for this crumpled man”.
Bill is the focus of what is, for me, the only dud note of The Chair, when he runs foul of campus cancel culture after sarcastically Sieg Heiling during a lecture on fascism. Gutsy as it is to tackle cancel culture, the narrative being pushed – that the protests are absurd because Bill is clearly not a Nazi – excuses his behaviour far too easily: surely no university lecturer needs to resort to a Nazi salute to make a point about fascism?
I have a soft spot for Jason Momoa… His voice is so deep, after a few grunts you feel your teeth loosening
It grates, because otherwise The Chair is exquisitely on point. Oh and Duplass have riotous on-screen chemistry, suffused with dry humour and messy longing. Holland Taylor is glorious as Joan, a subversive older professor. Child actor Everly Carganilla is a scene-stealing treat as Ji-Yoon’s adoptive daughter, Ju Ju, who delights in scaring off nannies: “Do you have fur on your vagina? Can I see it?” Belying the brevity of the episodes, The Chair burrows into ever-weaving themes: racism, sexism, ageism; the ache of irrelevance; why relationships are worth it, however painful they get. Intelligent, amusing, original, let’s hope we see more of it.
The opening episode of When Ruby Wax Met…, a three-part retrospective of Wax’s 1990s-early 00s television career as a celebrity interviewer, was a weirdly stressful watch. Wax, now a mental health campaigner and author, herself reflected that looking back over old encounters felt nerve-racking: “It’s another life, it doesn’t even feel like the same skin.”
This was partly down to Wax’s playful-provocative interviewing style: in her way, she was as innovative at crafting a persona as Sacha Baron Cohen when he did Ali G. Still, certain interviewees dragged in all the tension themselves, notably one Donald Trump, seen here wanting to become president long before the US made all his grandiose-narcissist dreams come true. “Boy, was he scary,” said Wax, and he was. Already sporting hair that looked like something you’d pull out of a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner in a house full of moulting pets, Trump was rude, dominating, dismissive (“That’s enough, I have a headache”), with a cold contempt for all non-Trumpian humanity billowing from him like a dark and glittering gas.
Elsewhere in the opener, OJ Simpson – the former American footballer famously acquitted for killing his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend – was similarly disturbing, at one point pretending to stab Wax with a banana from a discarded breakfast tray. Intent on chronicling the hazards of fame, Wax seemed all too cognisant of the moral dangers of humanising “big characters”. “Trump scared the shit out of me,” she said, adding wryly, “and I think it’s my fault he kept a career going.” When it came to the livelier, funnier interviews, such as with the late Carrie Fisher, who went on to become Wax’s friend (“She spoke prose,” said Wax admiringly. “There were just jewels dropping out of her mouth.”), Wax quite palpably relaxed.
Over on Mastermind, BBC news presenter Clive Myrie followed the esteemed likes of Magnus Magnusson and John Humphrys to make television history as the first person of colour to serve as host. Going by his launch episode, Myrie is a great fit, managing to be calm, firm and clearly spoken at all times. The specialist subjects included Swiss geography and Sir Roger Moore. My own dismal attempt at answering questions means I will not name and shame the contestant who decided that the passage that runs from the throat to the middle ear is called the colon. Ranvir Singh Kalare (specialist subject Bruce Springsteen) won through to the next round, becoming touchingly tearful at the end.
What is the enduring secret of Mastermind? The unchanging formula (questions; answers; “I’ve started so I’ll finish”; the end)? The dead classy lack of prize money – just a “magnificent, bespoke” glass bowl trophy that looks as if it should have a crawling china cat hanging off the side, but which (ask Ranvir) means the absolute world? Whatever the Mastermind magic is, it’s still working after getting on for half a century.
Apple TV+’s futuristic fantasy epic See, co-executive produced by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), returned for a second series with a clashing of swords and rustling of giant beards. A 21st-century virus has destroyed humankind, the couple of million people left are blind, and vision is considered to be a heretical myth. Jason Momoa plays the adoptive father of sighted children (now grown). As the new series began, the son was still abhorring violence, while the daughter remained captive.
I have a soft spot for Momoa – he’s the only living person who can get away with a man-bun without looking as though he should be serving goat milk cappuccinos in east London’s Hoxton. His voice is so deep, after a few grunts you feel your teeth loosening. Elsewhere, I have the same quibble with See that I have for many post-apocalyptic sagas: with all of sartorial history at your disposal, why is the medieval look where it’s at? Still, the cinematography is undeniably stunning, and the dark, sticky blood of imagination is here, for those who want to see it.
What else I’m watching
BBC Three | BBC iPlayer
Ladybaby is a new BBC Three/BBC Scotland comedy pilot, scripted by Kirstie Swain. Suzie (Amy Manson) is confronted by Katie (Mirren Mack), the 21-year-old who she put up for adoption as a baby. Spiky and lively, this deserves a full series.
The Wimbledon Kidnapping
Sky Documentaries | sky.com
Documentary about a notorious 1969 UK kidnapping. Muriel McKay, the wife of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited deputy, was abducted after being mistaken for Murdoch’s then-wife. After bungled police rescue attempts, Ms McKay was never seen again.
Sixteen: Class of 2021
Channel 4 | All 4
Documentary about year 11 pupils at a school in Dudley in the West Midlands. In 2020 they’re facing myriad challenges: turning 16, grades, Covid. Considering all they’re dealing with, these sweet-16s are spirited beyond belief.