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The Chair

Audrey inspects a film
Audrey inspects a film

Why do so many films about academics focus on the oddball personalities? I’m not complaining about the quality of these films, simply questioning the genre of the nonconformist academic. Most teachers and professors in my world are reasonably normal and conform to most conventions.

A great example of the eccentric instructor is the original film version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips from 1939. This film is a true joy. Robert Donat stars as Mr. Chipping, a timid loner whose early professional life is one of isolation at the boys at the boarding school where he teaches the classics. Then, with the help of his charming wife, played by Greer Garson, he overcomes his shyness and, with the passing years through sadness and glory, he and the boys develop rich relationships.

Donat was a British actor who was wooed to Hollywood but often had to work in England due to a very bad case of asthma. He won an Oscar for his sensitive portrayal of Chips but could not be present to accept the award. His ever-weakening health caused his death at 53. There is no more beloved eccentric teacher in the history of film than this particular Mr. Chips.

Films have offered us a string of strange but endearing teachers with unorthodox methods. Jack Black’s character in School of Rock. Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society. Michael Douglas’s character in Wonder Boys. And think of the Harry Potter movies: Professors Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Minerva McGonagall, and Remus Lupin. And speaking of Maggie Smith, the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is quite an example.

Now Netflix has given us The Chair, six half-hour episodes about the deteriorating English Department of a college whose ranking sits somewhere below the Ivy League institutions. The series is created and written by actress Amanda Peet; it’s a debut writing project for her. The academics in The Chair for the most part are a collection of stereotypes. So many are eccentrics. We are led to laugh at the elderly professors who have not had the good sense to retire, who have not updated their lesson plans or lectures since the death of Romanticism. They are a feeble lot who collect the biggest paychecks in the department and attract the fewest students to their classes. God knows, there is some truth to this aspect of The Chair.

The more vital members of the department are burdened by the power that the older academics wield. So it is a surprise to forty-six-year-old Professor Ji-Yoon Kim that she has been made Chair of the Department. Played by the wonderful Sandra Oh, this character is the strongest element in the series. Ji-Yoon is smart, up-to-date, hard-working and kind. She is a single mother to an imp, a sometimes brat of a girl child. Ji-Yoon is endlessly interesting and makes the show worthwhile for me.

Alongside Ji-Yoon is another tenured professor, a similarly-aged widower Bill Dobson, well-played by Jay Duplass. His classes are overbooked. He’s one of the most popular academics on campus till he makes a drastically wrong move in one of his classes. His politically-incorrect joke causes havoc on campus.

The various plots and sub-plots of The Chair fall between entertaining, trite, and over-played. Actor David Duchovny plays himself in an extended sequence that is just plain dull and uncalled-for. Also, Bill’s character is a problem. Peet seems not to understand when to ease up on the creation of this eccentric personality – to soften her depiction in order to prevent the creation of a predictable Johnny One Note.

Still, there is more than enough quality to recommend The Chair as a three-hour diversion. Some of it is genuinely funny and Sandra Oh is a pleasure to watch.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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