For those disappointed by the humorless and deeply earnest treatment of the contemporary campus experience in the 2020 TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the new Netflix series The Chair will be a welcome tonic. Over its punchy six half-hour episodes, the show, co-created by the actress Amanda Peet and produced by her husband David Benioff, deals with the iniquities of contemporary university life.
Its setting is Pembroke, a fictitious minor Ivy League campus somewhere in New England. The action is mainly seen from the perspective of the English department chair Ji-Yoon Kim, a Korean-American academic who fears that her promotion has been brought about through ‘diversity issues’, rather than merit. Yet whatever she goes through is not as grim as the fate of her friend, the brilliant academic and author Bill Dobson, who finds himself the target of outrage and protests after a poorly timed mock-Nazi salute during a lecture goes viral.
A conservatively inclined friend told me about The Chair, and said, wryly, ‘it’s surprisingly balanced.’ The great joy of Peet and her co-creator Annie Julie Wyman’s show is that it takes aim at several sacred cows of the contemporary American university experience and serves them up medium-rare. These include ancient, past-it academics dribbling on because tenure has rendered them unsackable; populist multiethnic lecturers with their eye on career ambitions; money-obsessed deans who seek to bring in wildly unsuitably celebrity guest dons to secure much needed donations from impressed alumni (a game David Duchovny, playing himself, deserves particular credit); and, of course, the bovine mob of students, easily whipped up into outraged protest because someone has told them that they should be triggered.
The program is a combination of liberal wish-fulfillment and bracing political incorrectness. (When Dobson is being disciplined by the faculty for his apparently outrageous behavior, his blithe response is to sing ‘Springtime For Hitler’.) While the show’s ultimate message may be one of tolerance and inclusion, there is little doubt that the student body, as presented here, are a deeply unsettling bunch, only too ready to stand on their metaphorical soapboxes and start shouting about white privilege and safe spaces. Apart, that is, from that mainstay of these narratives, the beautiful student with the hots for her lecturer. She attempts to seduce Dobson with a cake and allusions to Prufrock; he does not, in the end, dare to eat a peach.
This would all be fun and games were it not for the fact that the reality is around 10 times worse than The Chair can suggest. A few years ago, the height of campus stupidity seemed to be that teaching Ovid necessitated trigger warnings, yet a recent piece in Forbes suggested that academics have been fired or suspended for everything for using a word that sounded like (but wasn’t) the ‘N’ word to daring to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement. The same students who noisily demand their rights to free speech and free expression equally loudly turn on their instructors if they, too, dare to exercise such a privilege. And in these febrile, angry times, matters seem to be worsening exponentially, even before we factor in the shootings.
The Chair is an excellent show. I would recommend it to anyone. But after the laughs stop, it is worth remembering that its relatively benign presentation of campus totalitarianism is very much the Netflix version. Real life, alas, is far less funny, and getting grimmer all the time.