Netflix’s new dramedy fails to offer more than a superficial glance at the biggest questions of modern academia, which it claims to consider.
What makes an English degree valuable? What does good teaching look like at the college level? Should humanities professors double down on “critical theory” and identity politics, along with expanding or eliminating the oppressive white male canon to make classes interesting? Or should they return to close readings of classics and re-assert the idea that literary value and cultural worth are more than mere societal constructs?
These are the excellent questions Netflix’s new dramedy The Chair raises but fails to wrestle with. To ask the show to resolve these issues would be naive; but to address them beyond the merely superficial level is not unreasonable. If creators Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman—the latter an Ivy League Ph.D. herself—are going through the trouble of making viewers care about the arcane careers of English department professors, which is a task they succeed at wonderfully, then why not go to the trouble of weighing in meaningfully about the culture war issues that will make or break academia in the years to come?
The show at least makes the attempt. One of the fundamental plotlines involves cancel culture, another the battle for sitting butts (enrollment wars) between a younger, hip professor and a stodgy older one. Unfortunately, much as the Ninja Turtles T-Shirt wearing, Britney Spears lip-syncing hipster blurs the lines between irony and authenticity without accomplishing either to satisfaction, The Chair merely mirrors the burning higher ed polemics of our time without weighing in on whether wokedom or white privilege is the bigger culprit.
Let’s begin with the more prominent of the two plotlines. Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) issues a farcical Roman salute during class, which is recorded by student cellphone and subsequently stirs an outrage. Student protestors demand his resignation, and the school administration worries that the negative publicity will hurt donations and recruitment. Recently appointed department chair Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) must thread the needle between a firm public rebuke and saving the career of a man she personally likes and, for the most part, professionally respects.
So far so good, except that the whole “cancel culture” incident around which the plot revolves is a complete strawman. Who, in the age of the iPhone, makes a Sieg Heil except for drunken adolescents or actual neo-Nazis? Without swinging the plot pendulum to the evangelical right—a conservative Christian professor defends traditional marriage, for instance—there are plenty of examples of cancel culture that would have been more compelling. Philip Roth’s crypto-black professor accused of racist remarks in The Human Stain, comes to mind. Other low hanging fruit would have been a closeted Trump-voting professor, outed by online sleuthing, or a professor who takes issue with concepts like “structural racism” or “defund the police.” Even some fictionalized version of the Yale Halloween costume controversy over “cultural appropriation” would have been more poignant. Instead, we get a Nazi salute.
Professor Ji-Yoon appears, almost until the final moment of the show’s last episode, to defend Professor Dobson and acknowledge the absurdity of the woke mobs. But then, at the hearing where the professor’s fate is to be decided, she—presumably like the show’s creators and writers—hedges her ideological bets. If we fire Professor Dobson, she explains to the university president, but the school doesn’t really change, the protestors will be on the picketing line all over again. Thus the professor validates the students’ anger—but to what ends?
What deep structural change does the university need? The show offers no answer, or barely a hint of one, because Professor Ji-Yoon is ousted as chair without uttering any meaningful lines about what a “reformed” university should look like. Do we need more student activism or less? Do we need to keep the old and unpopular teachers or kick them out the door for the young hip ones? How will English, and humanities faculties generally, boost enrollment in our new age of automation and technocracy? For a leader of a department, she has little to say on these issues.
The show’s ideological indeterminacy—its failure to take a stand, really—is equally apparent in another subplot: the exercise in co-teaching a course by Professor Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah). The former is old and white, with slumping enrollment numbers for his classes; the latter is young, a minority (black), and exceedingly popular, to the point that she is being recruited by more prominent schools. Such dynamics surely exist in many departments across our nation, and the banter between the two of them, as well as between them and the students, points to real problems.
In one scene, Professor Rentz appears to be bested by a student when, during a lecture on Melville, the student points out that the author was a wife-beater. The pro-Professor McKay faction seems giddy. But then the scene ends, without any longer peroration on why the pedagogical task at hand should be dissecting the text or discussing the admittedly patriarchal time in which the book was written. Are relative cheap shots on authors who are fatally flawed by today’s moral standards a window onto some more meaningful kind of academic experience we’re missing out on; or are they an excuse to dismiss the work out of hand?
Another, equally unsatisfying scene depicts Professor McKay’s students appearing to refashion literary texts into Hamilton-style musical sets replete with song and dance. Fine. But what’s the upshot, other than the peeved look of a curmudgeonly Professor Rentz, who later explains to McKay that teaching is not a popularity contest? Again, is the takeaway that one-upping the old white guy is a victory in itself for the forces of progress, or does the English-class-cum-performance-art actually evince a deeper understanding and critical engagement of the text than a Socratic seminar? If the answer is the latter, it is not articulated by the otherwise fiery Yaz McKay.
The show, like Sandra Oh’s character, Professor Ji-Yoon, seems to want to offer a little something for both the classical liberals of the “great books” ilk and the vanguard of the cultural revolution, all at once. Unfortunately, as we on the right are finding out, while the classical liberal crowd comes from a tradition that brooks dissent and trades in open debate, the neo-Maoist enforcers of our current Red Guards do not. Well-intentioned liberals can only placate the woke for so long; just ask Erika Christakis, the Yale professor who had the gall to say that instead of a Halloween dress code students should discuss their differences or ignore the perceived offender and move on.
In times when the threshold for “courage” has become so low the unwoke often aren’t even aware they’ve crossed it, the least the commanders of the soaring heights of America’s leftist cultural hegemony could do is show a little spine.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles-area independent school.