By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are perhaps best known as the co-creators of the hyper-violent yet artistically lauded and broadly popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
So their choice to follow up their work on that show by collaborating, among other projects, on the academically themed Netflix presentation “The Chair” may at first seem curious.
The fact that Benioff is married to actress Amanda Peet, the newer program’s show runner, however, may go a long way in explaining the duo’s decision. Topical but tasteless, the resulting dramedy, directed by Daniel Gray Longino, is currently streaming in six half-hour installments.
Peet and her co-creator Annie Julia Wyman set out to chart the fortunes of Korean American professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), from whose recently acquired leadership post as head of the English department at fictitious Pembroke University the series takes its title. Kim is the first woman of color to ascend to this lofty position at the illustrious seat of learning.
Herself a 1994 graduate of Columbia University, Peet is clearly aiming to position Pembroke as an imaginary addition to the Ivy League. Thus the school’s crimson crest bears a striking resemblance to Harvard’s famous escutcheon.
Despite Kim’s rise to the top, viewers won’t necessarily envy her. With enrollment down and budget cuts looming — economies that could require her to lay off some of her older colleagues — she has inherited a department in crisis.
Yet it’s Kim’s tangled professional and personal relationship with immediate past chair Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) that most complicates her life. Bill’s status as a faculty star and critically admired novelist is the basis of her attraction to him.
Below the surface, however, Bill is a wreck of a man. Still immersed in grief for his beloved wife, Sharon, a year after her death, he’s prone to drink too much and to take drugs. He’s also known for showing up late for class, forgetting the course material and inadvertently showing his students sexually inappropriate videos.
Considering all that, when Bill spontaneously but ill-advisedly gives a “Heil Hitler” salute while making a point about fascism during a lecture, it’s no surprise that he immediately becomes embroiled in controversy. The once beloved instructor’s gesture in mistaken by his students for an endorsement of Nazism and quickly becomes an online meme.
With Bill facing a disciplinary hearing that could result in his dismissal, Kim, for her part, comes under fire for advising Lila (Mallory Low), Bill’s Asian American teaching assistant, not to speak to the press about the kerfuffle.
While the show’s depiction of the fraught, politically charged atmosphere on a typical college campus these days is too broad and lacks a strong point of view, “The Chair” is not without its merits. Principal among these is its realistic portrayal of Korean Americans.
Along the same lines, the program’s examination of Kim’s relationship with her adopted Latina daughter, Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), is another of its assets. The script acknowledges the challenges they face while still affirming the fundamental value of their bond and of adoption in general.
All this is lost, however, amid the welter of wayward elements with which viewers are confronted — including gratuitous nudity, profanity and vulgar dialogue. Is it really necessary, for instance, for the audience to watch as Bill, his pants lowered to uncover his bare rear end, urinates in an airport parking lot?
As for coarse language, it’s bad enough that the series tries to make hay of the inappropriately frank sexual remark that another of Kim’s colleagues, Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), a senior citizen, lets drop in the midst of a faculty party.
Far worse are the offensive observations that are put into the mouth of 7-year-old actress Carganilla. Her character’s irritating precociousness doesn’t provide Peet and her co-writers with the cover for this wildly age-inappropriate material they seem to think it does.
Given the lows to which “The Chair” sinks at such moments, thoughtful TV fans will look elsewhere for more substantial — as well as less sordid — entertainment.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.