When Netflix pioneered streaming television in the late 2000s, it changed not only how we watched TV but also the nature of television itself, as more and more series were being written and constructed with binge-watching in mind. But with the debut of its new comedy The Chair, it’s more important than ever that the streaming service consider modifying its release methods—the series is a prime example of an anti-Netflix show, one that would be better off if it wasn’t treated the same as every other original series on the service.
Created by Amanda Peet and screenwriter-academic Annie Julia Wyman, and executive produced by Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and Dan Weiss, The Chair stars Sandra Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman to be named chair of the English department at the prestigious Pembroke University and one of the few people of color on staff. The show—which would not feel out of place next to something like HBO’s Togetherness, especially given the people involved—explores the professional and personal relationships of the department’s members while tackling topics like single motherhood, sexism, racism, ageism, and anti-Semitism through the lens of academia. It’s a sometimes messy but still enjoyable series, anchored by excellent performances from Oh and scene-stealer Holland Taylor, who plays a professor in her 70s struggling to earn the respect she deserves from both her peers and her students.
But while the series has lofty ambitions and nails with startling clarity several aspects of working in higher ed (it’s perhaps too realistic at times), the biggest takeaway from The Chair is that it doesn’t feel like a show one would normally find on Netflix—and not just because of the way it evokes certain HBO series. With just six 30-minute episodes in Season 1, The Chair can be easily binged in one sitting, but it doesn’t appear to be designed for it. In fact, it works best as a show that is watched week to week so there is time to sit with these characters, their actions, and the show’s approach to slice-of-life storytelling. This is in direct opposition to many shows developed for Netflix today, which are constructed with episodes built around emotional and plot-driven cliffhangers that often lead to poor pacing and structure while encouraging viewers to press the “next episode” button. The Chair does not do this, at least not intentionally or in the way most Netflix shows do.
The series premiere ends with the promise of major conflict; Jay Duplass’ Dr. Bill Dobson is a popular professor caught on video jokingly performing a Nazi salute in an attempt to make a point about fascism and modernism. It’s a moment that asks viewers to consider what they’ve seen and how they feel about it in addition to what will happen next. That many viewers will skip over the first part and quickly press play to find out what the narrative implications are is a response not only to the fact it’s possible to immediately find out, but that Netflix has encouraged this behavior. But if there were ever a show that could have, and should have, challenged Netflix’s overall release strategy and forced it to consider changing its method to better suit the on-screen action, it’s The Chair.
Much has already been written about the recent backlash against binge-watching; the weekly rollout for Disney+’s WandaVision led to praise for not bingeing shows earlier this year, as the series invited conversation while viewers meticulously tried to figure out what was going on and what it all meant. While The Chair doesn’t encourage viewer involvement or investment through fan theories or present puzzles in need of answering, it does propose several important topics worthy of ongoing discussion and reflection, which Netflix’s current release method does not allow for. At best the conversation surrounding even the most popular Netflix shows lasts a week, maybe two, before viewers’ short attention spans have them moving on to something else. Although The Chair doesn’t hit every one of its marks—its insistence on making Bill a romantic lead is difficult to swallow because the show never goes far enough in its exploration of his white male mentality and response to being questioned—it is a series worthy of our attention as it pertains to discussions of what it means to be a woman, especially a woman of color, in America, as well as what we consider to be acceptable and/or forgivable.
After his initial transgression in the classroom leads to backlash from the student body and university staff, Bill holds an ill-advised town hall that only further incenses Pembroke’s students. In the finale, having been suspended and facing termination, Bill arrives at Ji-Yoon’s home in what appears at first to be a romantic gesture, but is actually an attempt to emotionally manipulate her and convince her to leave Pembroke with him. He is awaiting a hearing with the provost and the board of trustees, and he immediately becomes indignant once he learns Ji-Yoon is supposed to recommend his firing at the hearing, something she’s conflicted about given their long friendship and the possibility of a deeper relationship. But Bill refuses to take responsibility for his actions that have led him to this very moment.
All of this—from the minute Bill decides to invoke Nazism for a joke to the moment he turns on Ji-Yoon, who is facing her own issues as the chair of the department as a result of her friendship with Bill—is ripe for discussion, especially in today’s troubled climate. But will that happen? How much digital ink will be used on dissecting Bill’s actions, the university’s response to his ignorance, and Ji-Yoon’s conflicted reaction to what’s happening? Meanwhile, how much time will be dedicated to discussing what is also happening to Holland’s Dr. Joan Hambling, a distinguished scholar whose office has been moved to the basement of the gymnasium, and whose attempts to fight against the academic establishment via Title IX ultimately go nowhere?
You can argue The Chair takes the wrong approach to Bill as a character, and that it doesn’t do enough to immediately and effectively tear down the institutional failings of Pembroke and the larger systems in place in this country. But by allowing the show to drop all at once and quickly get swallowed up by the churn of the content mill, Netflix is not giving it or the audience a proper chance to process any of what it’s doing right, which is raising questions about women and power, who gets to wield it and what they do with it. It’s not to say Netflix should abandon the binge model entirely—the company’s 208 million global subscribers go a long way to prove that it’s popular and successful and works very well—but introducing the possibility for some series like The Chair to be released weekly would be the first step toward not only changing the way people view Netflix, but even what they expect from its original series. And it would allow for the possibility of keeping shows in the public eye for much longer than a week or two. The Chair might be a perfect example of an anti-Netflix show, but it could have also been the first show to challenge the status quo, changing the service for the better.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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