Sandra Oh, who can easily be labelled as our national treasure, has always been a comedic genius. She gifted us with the Golden-Globe winning role of Christina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy and then with her Emmy-nominated performance as Eve in Killing Eve. Now Oh stars in, and serves as Executive Producer, on the new Netflix comedy, The Chair.
The half-hour six-episode series is centred around Korean-American professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Oh), who has just been hired to chair the English department at the prestigious Pembroke University. She happens to be the first woman and first woman of colour to earn this coveted position.
As she sets out to handle the crisis brought to her by department staff, she’s also having to juggle being a single mom raising Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla), her adopted daughter of Mexican origin, and trying to overcome the myriad of cultural barriers that are set against her. It’s refreshing to see a messy mixed-race adoption as well and to watch as Ji-Yoon works to get closer to Ju Ju, as the young girl lashes out for being adopted into a Korean-American family. This is Oh’s first turn as a mom and she carries the richness of her role with flare—not afraid to carry her parental insecurities front and centre as she tries her best to succeed while also following her career ambitions.
The show manages to use humour to deal with different issues of racism, sexism and white privilege, often relying on Oh’s tremendous comedic chops to do the heavy lifting. Her talents are displayed to their fullest extent here; sometimes all it takes is a well-delivered deadpan look to get everyone laughing out loud. It’s a truly terrific exhibition for her incredible range as an actor.
The series also acts as a stellar platform for the rest of the cast. Holland Taylor hands in a sublime performance as a senior professor facing discrimination. She lights up every scene she’s in and we are left wanting more at every turn. Bob Balaban, also perfectly cast, plays the other side of the coin as a senior professor discriminating against a young Black scholar in his department. Also along for the ride is Jay Duplass, who brings incredible warmth and humour to his role as Professor Bill Dobson. His chemistry with Oh is one of the true joys of the series.
Thematically, The Chair focuses in on educational institutions run by white men and the systemic issues created by the clear imbalance of power. The challenges faced by women, and particularly by women of colour, are smartly addressed, but it sometimes felt like the show didn’t have enough time to properly speak to everything it wanted to over its approximate three hour run time. The debacle of “cancel culture” that takes centre stage at one point takes up far more screen time than was necessary. If green lit for a second season, it would be nice to see those issues of racism, ageism, sexism and patriarchy more completely fleshed out—without losing that classic Oh humour, of course.