Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) teaches modernist literature at Pembroke University, a prestigious American institution. In his forties, he’s by far the most popular professor in the English department, struggling with low enrolments and has-been academics. In an otherwise pleasant morning, while lecturing impromptu about fascism in literature, Bill chooses to do an ironic Nazi salute and a “Heil Hitler!” Footage of the scene are instantly shared, and his apology and resignation demanded. Amid growing student outrage, pressure from the college administration, and her personal relationship with Bill, Ji-yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the first woman and Asian-American to chair the department, is tasked with handling the situation.

The 2021 Netflix series The Chair is brave to explore a sensitive realm: the tension between free speech and offensive speech. Greatly pertinent to today’s world is that uneasy conflict, and the controversy at Pembroke isn’t bound to a literature class at a fictional American college. Countless things in the real world summon the free speech dilemma — a divisive tweet, a remark from a comedy show; or, say, an aesthetics debate hosted by the debating society of a leading British university.

Indeed, it’s less than a month ago that the Cambridge Union sparked a major controversy, in which art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon satirically impersonated Hitler and used racial slurs while arguing that there is such a thing as bad artistic taste (like Hitler’s). How uncannily similar to what Bill did at Pembroke? Also controversial was the Union’s subsequent, eventually reversed decision to create a speaker blacklist and put Graham-Dixon on it.

This sequence of events — involving also public apologies, calls for resignation, and a John Cleese boycott of a Union event in protest against the blacklist — left us with difficult questions. When, if at all, should free speech be restricted? How should we respond when someone uses words we deem inappropriate? Should we treat differently those who use offensive language to side with offensive ideologies and those using it as a satire, an example, or a mistake? Does the popular strategy of cancelling ultimately harm the democratic discourse or successfully de-platform undemocratic behaviour?

“if the first step towards an informed opinion is to understand and acknowledge different views and experiences, then The Chair has done a generally good job of setting the stage for it”

For anyone questioning, The Chair is a great watch. Not because it solves the dilemma with a clear-cut answer, but precisely because it doesn’t try to. What co-creators Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman excels in is the art of maintaining a balance between confronting perspectives. The show doesn’t portray Bill as a fascist inciting Neo-Nazism (which he isn’t), or ignore that the words and gesture he used can cause offence and distress to many, even when used satirically. While recognising the value of free speech, it doesn’t fail to acknowledge that Bill’s incident exists within an equally important context that is a worrying rise in antisemitic incidents around the world. It’s admittedly regrettable that on one or two occasions, the show depicts students (wrongly) accusing Bill of being a Nazi, initially misrepresenting their more legitimate concerns and detracting from this careful balancing act. But, if the first step towards an informed opinion is to understand and acknowledge different views and experiences, then The Chair has done a generally good job of setting the stage for it.

What’s impressive is that in dealing with a delicate topic in such a balanced way, the show maintains just the right amount of gravitas. It’s not too heavy to the point where it loses its attraction as a dramedy — the day-to-day operations of the failing English department (like an old-school professor’s pathetic attempt to track down the student who gave her lecture a mean review) provides enough comic relief here and there. Nor is it too lighthearted to belittle the serious nature of Bill’s Hitler scandal and its aftermath. The Chair is one of the few shows that I was enticed enough to finish in one sitting, and that’s probably because it knows well when to be serious and when to be witty (although, I concede, it does consist of only six half-hour episodes).

Another pillar of the show apart from the free speech debate is Ji-yoon’s everyday struggles, both inside and outside the professional domain. A woman, a Korean-American, and a single mother, she’s a strong character at the intersection of two cultures and several disadvantaged groups. At work, she has to deal with white male professors who, albeit never explicitly racist, don’t invite her to dinners like they do to Bill (also white and male). At home, she needs to connect with both her Korean immigrant father and her adopted daughter of Mexican descent. These problems don’t go away just because Ji-yoon has ‘overcome’ them and became the Chair, the highest level in her professional ladder. The Chair offers a strikingly down-to-earth account of living and working in between cultures, illuminating the minute difficulties of doing so that are so mundane, so easily overlooked. I was also surprised to see all the little cultural details and a quite realistic depiction of the Korean immigrant community — something I’ve been seeing exclusively in Korean directors’ works like Minari (2020).


Mountain View

Two takes on The French Dispatch

The Chair gives one a lot to think about, whether it’s about the extent of free speech, about life as an second-generation immigrant in a cliquish setting, or just about the inner workings of elite academia. Changing paradigms of teaching and institutional problems in the ivory tower are among the themes also explored. Some will feel that all this is a bit too much, but I beg to differ. It’s the show’s ability to tell so many pertinent stories in a coherent, intriguing, and balanced way that makes it one of the best ones around.