How “The Chair” needs to do better by Sandra Oh

Kylie Cheung in

By now Sandra Oh’s hive of devoted fans have likely binged all six episodes of her new Netflix dramedy, “The Chair.” As Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly appointed chair of the English department of a small liberal arts school called Pembroke, Oh’s meteoric rise comes at a time of scandal and uncertainty for her department, and it doesn’t help that she’s a woman of color subject to the racism and misogyny inherent to academia. “The Chair” has a lot going for it — namely, Oh’s presence, but also smart commentary and realism on the pressing issues facing American universities today. Still, there’s one pretty big problem that makes the show difficult to enjoy for audiences who wanted to see a story about a woman like Dr. Kim overcome barriers and rise to the occasion. That problem is Pembroke English professor ​​Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass). Duplass is charming as ever in “The Chair,” but there’s nothing more frustrating than seeking out a show for fresh storytelling that centers the experience of a marginalized person and instead being hit with a storyline focused on a bumbling, white male doofus. There’s many a pressing issue Dr. Kim faces as chair of an under-enrolled English department, but she’s instead forced to clean up mess after mess created by a drunken, reckless and politically insensitive Dobson.

Audiences of “The Chair” can certainly sympathize with Dobson, who recently lost his wife and seems to have a strained relationship with his young adult daughter. The problem, however, isn’t that he’s sympathetic — it’s that too much energy and airtime are given to make us sympathize with yet another white man who can’t seem to get his act together, and makes this everyone else’s problem.

Sprawled across the show’s six, roughly 20 minute episodes are scenes of Dobson showing up late to classes, performing a Nazi salute as part of a tasteless joke, and refusing to apologize to students who confront him, interspersed with charming sequences of him being a wonderful babysitter to Dr. Kim’s young daughter JuJu (Everly Carganilla). “The Chair” unfortunately isn’t the first case of an interesting female character, character of color, or otherwise marginalized character being pushed to the side for a white man’s redemption arc, or some long-winded, flashback storytelling into why an awful white guy is awful (spoiler alert: it’s never actually his fault). The unsolicited white male rehabilitation storyline is a fixture in nearly every genre of story, and frustrating as it may be, it’s not always a pain to watch.

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