AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
“The Chair” is a new Netflix series about a fictional New England university in crisis mode with the always-great Sandra Oh at the helm. Oh plays Ji-Yoon Kim, the school’s first female chair of the English department. The comedy touches on a lot of contemporary themes currently playing out in the real world of academia, most notably the tensions between a predominantly older and whiter staff and an increasingly younger and multicultural student body. I’m Aisha Harris, and today we’re talking about “The Chair” on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don’t go away.
Welcome back. Joining me today is Karen Tongson, chair and professor of gender and sexuality studies at USC Dornsife and the co-host of the “Waiting To X-hale” podcast. Welcome to the show, Karen.
KAREN TONGSON: It’s my pleasure to be here.
HARRIS: Yes. I’m excited to have a real, in-the-flesh chair to talk about “The Chair.” It’s going to be very fun.
TONGSON: Yeah. I mean, you know, the funny thing about it is that the setup of the show of Sandra Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon Kim, is the first woman of color chair of the English department in a hundred and seventy-nine years at the fictional Pembroke University. And I was the first woman of color to be promoted to the rank of full professor in my English department in 140 years.
HARRIS: So, yeah, you are perfect for this. This is great.
HARRIS: So when this show begins, Ji-Yoon Kim – played by Sandra Oh, as Karen just said – has just become the first woman to chair the English department at Pembroke University, which is a fictional university. And Ji-Yoon is determined to usher in this new era, but she’s almost immediately saddled with a bunch of unexpected challenges.
For one, the dean, played by David Morse, informs her that because of low enrollment, she has to convince three of the older tenured professors whose performance reviews have dwindled in recent years to go into retirement. She also wants to make Yaz McKay, a younger, more progressive Black professor played by Nana Mensah, a distinguished lecturer. But she faces resistance from the dean. And on top of all of that, her sometime love interest, professor Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass, becomes the center of a campus culture war after making a controversial statement during one of his classes, which results in student protests.
So rounding up the cast are Bob Balaban as professor Elliot Rentz and Holland Taylor as professor Joan Hambling, both veteran educators who must reckon with being considered out of touch by their students. And Everly Carganilla plays Ju Ju, Ji-Yoon’s young adopted daughter with whom she struggles to connect. Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman created “The Chair,” while Oh serves as an executive producer.
So, Karen, you’ve already hinted at this. But this is a – I imagine it’s kind of a personal show for you. And I’m curious as to what your initial thoughts were about “The Chair.”
TONGSON: I think that, first and foremost, I had to manage my expectations because pop culture has been notoriously bad at depicting academia with any kind of accuracy, especially because I think that so much of what we do is still very arcane and kind of bureaucratically opaque to a lot of folks. So it’s hard to turn that into drama. I’m thinking especially about “Thirtysomething” with Gary trying to get tenure.
Most of the time, actually, academic shows are dramatic. So I was pleased to hear that “The Chair” was going to be a comedy because I do feel that there is an absurdist aspect to life in the academy. Like any workplace, it has its own elements of farce. So I was really excited. But one of the things that I also noticed is that my colleagues, my friends, all of academia was super-excited. It wasn’t just me, quite obviously, because we’re so thirsty for that kind of representation. We got to have more than, you know, the lovers in the hot tub supping on spiced meats to represent professors. So this is a kind of happy medium between, you know, this kind of comedic, almost parodic look or satirical look at academia and some of those more dramatic, sentimental, o-captain-my-captain looks at academia.
HARRIS: Yeah. You know, as someone who went to undergrad, went to grad school but hasn’t been in the academic setting for almost a decade now, it was really interesting to watch because even though I am outside of this world, so many of the conversations that are happening on this show are happening in academia but also being – like, spilling over into – there’s been tons of media stories that have captured sort of the conflict that is happening on campuses.
And a lot of that also spills onto Twitter, where I think specifically of what has been going on with Nicole Hannah-Jones. And there are some interesting parallels between what happened with her battle with UNC and the fact that they didn’t want to give her tenure earlier this year. And then she decided at the end, after a long battle about lots of things, about critical race theory and that being thrown out a lot – she ultimately wound up choosing to go to Howard.
And this is something that comes up in the show with Jaz, the Black, progressive teacher who is, you know, at one point sort of wondering, do I have a place here? – because I’m not getting the support I need, even though Sandra Oh’s character is trying really hard to do that. And it’s just really fun to see the sort of mechanics and the way in which Ji-Yoon is trying to make this work, but all of these obstacles, most of them coming in the form of white men (laughter), whether it’s the dean or her love interest, played by Jay Duplass – it’s so interesting to watch that unfold. Did it live up to your – well, you’re very low expectations…
HARRIS: …Or surpass them in any way? Like, what did you enjoy about this, if anything?
TONGSON: What “The Chair” does really well is precisely what it promises, and that’s depict what it’s like to be a chair insofar as you want to do right by your people. You’re there trying to reform an institution that has its sexism, its racism baked into it, and you’re doing the best that you can to change the agenda and to push things forward. But a lot of your time is taken up being stretched between meetings. You’re being pulled in different directions, putting out fires. You want to give people all of your attention and time, especially individual cases, especially putting forward a more reformist agenda to the field and the discipline. And you have to come across egos and massaging egos and doing those things, especially of older faculty in particular.
And I think that that will touch a nerve with folks, especially faculty of color who’ve been academia – in academia for a long time and who are faculty in traditional disciplines, that it’s a delicate dance. And more often than not, you’re kind of doomed to not succeed as somebody who wants to represent the institution and reform the institution at the same time, right? As she says – she…
TONGSON: …Brings up that quote from Audre Lorde at one point – the well-worn quote that we all know about the master’s tools never being able to dismantle the master’s house. And I think that that’s the through line that “The Chair” gets very well.
HARRIS: Yeah. I would love to know what you think about the sort of controversy that swirls at the center of it when it comes to the Bill Dobson character. He’s the sort of star professor that everyone really loves because he’s very energetic. But as we learn at the beginning of the episode, he’s a recent widower, and he is, like, basically a mess at this moment. He’s dealing with a lot of things. And during class, he writes on the board fascism versus absurdism. And he’s kind of explaining and trying to get the students to understand why fascism and absurdism sort of meld together. And at one point, he just kind of off the cuff says, heil Hitler and raises his arm.
This turns into a whole – like, it snowballs from there. It happens in the blink of an eye, but there’s – it’s an interesting way the show handles it. Because after he does that, you get some shots of students, like, kind of looking up and all of a sudden, their interest is piqued in a way that it wasn’t a few moments ago. And you can kind of see where this is going to go. And then, of course, it turns into – it becomes memed. It’s shared around the entire campus. Students are upset because it’s taken out of context in some way.
And I’d love to know your thoughts in sort of how that is handled because I think there’s a couple of different ways you could see it. You could see it as – you see it happen, and he clearly doesn’t mean any ill intent. And he’s using it sort of as an off the cuff – it’s within the context of what he’s talking about. It’s not like he’s – this is meant to be provocative. He just does it. But then you also have to wonder, you know, should he have chosen his words carefully? And so to see this thing spiral and the way in which the show treats it, I was often left wondering – you know, this to me is a very benign example of something that someone could do on campus in real life that would be taken as these students are just completely – you know, they’re wilding out and this is cancel culture at its worst. And I’m curious as to how you responded to that, the way that takes place.
TONGSON: So in a global sense – OK, I mean, just, like, the kind of bigger picture for me is that what the show does get right is that even though academia is caricatured as a progressive antifa – you know (laughter)? – like the sort of – the right caricatures academia as some, like, Fonte of, like, progressive chaos in some way. The show accurately depicts that, actually, universities are quite culturally conservative and there’s a lot of image management. And, you know, the contemporary university is very much in every possible way a kind of business that also needs to manage its liability, right? So much of how this incident blows up has to do with that mentality of trying to avoid actual conversations or difficult conversations all for the sake of managing image and managing liability.
The other thing about the incident itself – I think, you know, if there’s a critique that I have of the show, it’s that the undergraduates, the students themselves, get real short shrift in this context, and they’re reactiveness is a bit overblown, right?
TONGSON: It kind of lets faculty and the administration off the hook around their own handling of these things, even though, as I just said, you know, the show does handle some aspects of that well. But I think that there’s – it’s a slightly bit too one dimensional around, you know, the kind of student attitudes. And I think that there’s a lot more nuance that goes on around responses to incidents like that. I mean, look, Sandra Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon, points it out to Bill directly to his face – that was idiotic, and you expected people to basically clean your messes up for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE CHAIR”)
JAY DUPLASS: (As Bill Dobson) That’s on him. Did you make that clear? Did you defend me?
SANDRA OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) You don’t – do you know what I have been dealing with? Students coming and crying and – this isn’t what I want to be dealing with as chair.
TONGSON: And I think that that interpersonal dynamic or that sense of privilege maybe that a white male professor would feel around freely, jokingly demonstrating an offensive gesture for his students – I wish that they would have, like, gone into how it’s different for Bill and for Bill to be able to do that than it would be for, let’s say, Yaz’s character to have to, like, watch every move that she makes, as opposed to just kind of focusing on the inflammatory aspects of cancel culture and students just, you know, don’t pay attention to details and that kind of thing.
HARRIS: I think that is, for me – now that you mention it – what I was also missing was just, like – I think it did a really good job of showing how, you know, the Bill character just makes it worse by not really acknowledging it and saying, like, oh, well, I don’t understand why – like, I’m not going to apologize, blah, blah, blah, that sort of thing. But at the same time, it’s like, OK, the actual actions that took place to get him to that point aren’t really addressed. And I think part of that could be in part because, of course, like you said, this is the way often schools work, is that there is this sort of focus – hyperfocus on the image and the image crisis, handling that as opposed to what is actually done. But I do think, like, if you’re a TV show and you have that freedom, creative freedom to do so, it would have been fun and interesting to see them really deal with that. And I wish we could have seen more of that there.
TONGSON: Well, I think that in the show’s subtle notes, you do get the sense of, you know, the critique of Bill’s privilege. He gets to be a hot mess.
HARRIS: For sure. Absolutely.
TONGSON: Right? And, you know, and he gets to be a hot mess because he’s considered a young, brilliant – or, like, once young – but, like, you know, brilliant male, white male professor. And you see how actually it’s the women and the women of color in those frameworks in the context of the show who are left having to clean up these messes or, you know, having to kind of suffer the consequences of, let’s say, the English department’s failure to draw students in a kind of more contemporary moment or to enlist their interest in a contemporary moment. Holland Taylor’s character…
HARRIS: She’s great. Yeah.
TONGSON: …Joan Hambling for example, you know, she’s – the way that she subtly tells the story of what it was like to be a woman in academia for decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE CHAIR”)
HOLLAND TAYLOR: (As Joan Hambling) I started as an assistant professor here 32 years ago. They offered me $26,000. But I found out that John McHale, who started the same year I did and is still kicking around, got 16,000 more. I thought about saying something, but I didn’t want to be that woman.
TONGSON: And then to end up with this really terrible office in the basement of a gym with peeling paint, basically exiled from the heart of the action of the department in general, that’s really poignant, and that’s really resonant. But then you also see her commit her own violence as a result of what she experienced in her career, right? So towards…
TONGSON: …Younger staff people, towards younger women, towards younger women of color. You know, I love that the characters themselves are pretty well-drawn-out and multidimensional. And, of course, Holland Taylor has the capacity to elicit our pathos…
TONGSON: …As well as our alliance through this.
HARRIS: Yes, Holland Taylor was great. And I do love how that character’s really given the leeway to be both things, as you said – to be both, like, sympathetic, but also sometimes to be the actual causer of harm sometimes.
TONGSON: The hegemommy (ph).
HARRIS: Yes. Oh, hegemommy. I love that.
HARRIS: And I also love – I really appreciate the Yaz character. And I, you know – my one quibble with her is just in some ways the way she’s framed as the sort of super hip professor. Like, obviously…
TONGSON: Oh, yeah.
HARRIS: …I appreciate that she…
TONGSON: You mean the Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque…
HARRIS: Oh, my God.
TONGSON: …”Moby-Dick” rap? Which I was like…
TONGSON: …Is this supposed to be serious? Are we supposed to laugh at it? Are we supposed to – yeah, I don’t know how to feel about that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE CHAIR”)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, rapping) Bulkington gone in a blaze of glory. Fedallah arrives in the middle of the story.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, rapping) Captain Ahab going neurotic (ph), while the crew squeezes firm all homoerotic.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) No women on board. No women on board.
HARRIS: Like, I feel like ever since “Dangerous Minds,” where it was like we have this cool, hip teacher who uses hip-hop or whatever to teach, I’m like, that’s not the only way professors can be cool. Like, they…
HARRIS: I don’t think – I mean, I went to acting undergrad. So that withstanding, all of my other non-acting-related classes or theater-related classes, I had really great teachers. We didn’t rap or sing in any of them…
HARRIS: …You know? So I would have appreciated if, like, her character wasn’t quite what I would deem as, like, the sort of stereotypical younger, hipper professor. Like, not all of them are like that, and I think it’s important to show a little bit of range in that sense. But I did appreciate, you know, like I mentioned earlier, the sort of Nikole Hannah-Jones or just, like, any Black professor who’s trying to move in that world and what it feels like to be undervalued. I mean, that really is what it is – right? – is so many of these characters, whether it’s, you know, the Ji-Yoon character, Yaz, the Holland Taylor character, they’re dealing with feeling undervalued. And I think the show really gets that point across in really interesting ways, I feel.
TONGSON: In that it’s about people’s competing sense of being undervalued, right?
TONGSON: Like, Bob Balaban’s character, Elliot Rentz, who was the golden boy of the department for many years, but is in kind of the waning period of his career, still also insists on or asserts – like, he wants to assert his value in some way.
TONGSON: And I think that, you know, the human element of chairing is very much handling those feelings, those feelings that people from different perspectives are having and figuring out a way to create some form of, like, emotional stability and correspondence, at least, where everybody can kind of coexist. That juggling is, I think, also depicted pretty well in this, even though, you know – I loved the really, really subtle nod to “The Wife” – the film “The Wife.”
HARRIS: Oh, yeah.
TONGSON: When Elliot Rentz – at some point in the series, you see his wife for one scene, and they allude to the fact that she, too, was a scholar and that she sacrificed her career. So she’s like, somebody had to, you know, cook dinner. She said something to that effect.
TONGSON: And I’m like, OK, there’s – this has dimensions. And I’m glad that it made that gesture to all of the other people who just, like, never got to have a career…
TONGSON: …Altogether because so much energy of the institution, of the department of academia was committed to the success of white men.
HARRIS: Yeah. And for listeners who may not recall, “The Wife” was the movie that came out a couple years ago starring Glenn Close as the wife of a very, like, famous, prestigious – was it an academic?
TONGSON: A prize-winning author.
HARRIS: An author – yes, yes, yes. That was a role that really, really tapped into that sense of like, OK, feeling undervalued and being the spouse of a very famous and renowned person while knowing that you helped them get there, whether it’s, you know, as creative inspiration or by just being the person doing everything at home.
TONGSON: Or who did both, who really did the work and really…
TONGSON: Like, I think there was an interesting thing that they were doing to enrich that particular characterization.
HARRIS: Exactly. I mean, the last thing I want to talk about briefly before we go is just, like, the fact that we also see Ji-Yoon’s life outside of academia. And I really thought it was great to see a transracial adoption that did not involve, like, a white person. It was great to see because she – her daughter, JuJu (ph), is Latina. And so the show kind of deals in interesting ways with the ways in which Ji-Yoon wants her to connect with her Mexican heritage while also being immersed in Ji-Yoon’s Korean heritage because she also lives with Ji-Yoon’s father. And so I thought it was really interesting to see that.
And I love seeing the more personal side of this character because that’s one thing I think Sandra Oh’s really good at. She’s good at everything, but especially those moments that she doesn’t get to be a, quote-unquote, “professional” in her roles, in her characters. I think those are, to me, like the sweet spot of Sandra Oh performances because she’s just so vulnerable and emotive in ways that I really appreciate.
TONGSON: I call it her messy put-togetherness because you know you can rely on her, but you also know that she has these fallibilities, that goofiness that translates so well and that makes her so likable onscreen, right? And I think that she does get how one is torn in multiple directions in this context and has so little time in many respects to tend to the things that are important to them. You’re constantly working. You’re constantly – you know, I think that people don’t get that aspect of academia. I think that, you know, the notion that we get summers off or that, you know, we’re done at the end of the day and get to relax at night – no, that doesn’t happen, actually. There’s a kind of boundedness, a bounded temporality to what we do as scholars and what we do as professors.
And I also like the fact that what “The Chair” presents for us is a different point of view on the university. We’re so used to thinking about universities only through the undergrad’s point of view or through college students’ point of view, or college life through the student’s point of view. And we don’t really see that faculty also have messy, complicated, intricate, emotionally complicated lives.
HARRIS: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, if there’s anything I learned from the show, or at least that I was reminded of at the show, it’s just like we have all these hospital dramas, we have all these cop shows, all of these office dramas. Academia is just as screwy and ripe for comedic and dramatic tension as any other workplace.
Well, we want to know what you think about “The Chair.” You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter – @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much for being here, Karen. It was so great talking to you.
TONGSON: I could talk about this show forever, so thanks for having me.
HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you’re so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we’ll see you all tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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