'The Chair' examines generational divides in a college English department

2 months ago 14
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Ken Bolden, Sandra Oh and Mark Philip Stevenson in 'The Chair' (Eliza Morse/Netflix).

(CNN)"The Chair" lays out an interesting exercise by examining generational divides through the prism of a college English department and the first woman of color leading it, played by Sandra Oh. Yet an exceptional cast mostly outshines the material, leaving what amounts to a mildly diverting binge with one inordinately amusing cameo baked into it.

Oh's Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, as the new English chair at prestigious Pembroke University, is getting pulled in multiple directions. There are problems with the dinosaurs on the staff (played by, among others, Bob Balaban and Holland Taylor), who resist new ways; an outspoken provocateur, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), whose eagerness to stir the academic pot creates enormous headaches; and a rising star, Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), who as a Black woman asks why Ji-Yoon is so solicitous of those at a hidebound institution that resists necessary changes.

"You act like you owe them something," Yaz tells her.

    Ji-Yoon has her share of clashes with the dean (David Morse), who is committed to protecting the school's hierarchy and image. Her ill-defined personal relationship with Bill -- who apparently never got the memo about the perils of invoking Hitler to make a point -- only adds to her discomfort trying to manage him.

      Finally, there's a second schism between the faculty and students, who have their own strong opinions about the education they're receiving, and with whom the older professors in particular have trouble connecting, viewing them with a mix of confusion, exasperation and fear.

      The project was created by Amanda Peet, who produced it along with her husband, "Game of Thrones'" David Benioff, and his producing partner D.B. Weiss. In a rather meta twist, Peet also enlisted a former co-star, "The X-Files'" David Duchovny, to playfully appear as himself, with eager-to-please administrators wanting the Ivy League-educated actor to deliver a lecturer in order to wow donors, in what might be the show's funniest (and most promotable) wrinkle.

      Having dealt with a different kind of bureaucracy in "Killing Eve," Oh is well suited to playing a character navigating this absurd minefield. But at times "The Chair" feels as it's juggling too much, as opposed to focusing more steadfastly on a few key plots. Taylor's character, for example, becomes obsessed with cruel anonymous comments directed at her online, a seemingly unnecessary detour given all the ground the show has to cover in just six half-hour episodes.

      At its best, "The Chair" offers a window into the changing nature of academia, the institutional impediments to achieving diversity and the evolving state of higher education, with students who are no longer content to passively accept what's handed down to them from on high.

        As assembled, the series possesses all kinds of classy trappings and intriguing themes as it blends comedy and drama, without advancing to the head of the class. Think of it as a doctoral candidate that, when dissertation time rolls around, doesn't quite live up to its considerable potential.

        "The Chair" premieres Aug. 20 on Netflix.

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