The Chair S1E1: “Brilliant Mistake”—Death and Modernism in the Ivory Tower

Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) sits at the head of a conference table with windows behind her and two people on the edges of the frame
Photo courtesy of Netflix

The Chair S1E1, “Brilliant Mistake” takes on a lot of philosophical and cultural critiques but it is the central performance by Sandra Oh that keeps it rolling. The Chair is co-created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, who each bring a unique sensibility to the show, which seems to fit in the “prestige” section of Netflix’s ever-evolving catalog. Amanda Peet has extensive television experience and has worked with and learned from some great creative teams over the years. She has also articulated a clear vision of what this show is about and what she wants.

Peet and Jay Duplass (who plays Professor Bill Dobson) had been working on a show for several years and finally hit on the perfect vehicle when Peet and Wyman came together. Wyman has a background in academia, as she spent time in the belly of the beast at Harvard. She also has a tremendous understanding of the comedic structure and flow, as that is what she was actually studying. From the first moments, it feels that The Chair has a serious interpretation to give about how intractable academia is, and how misogynistic values have created the entire structure. 

Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh) and Bill (Jay Duplass) standing in front of a snowy wall looking at each other

Similarly, Peet’s experience in television has had some rocky moments. It is clear that she has taken some of the lessons of dismissal and misogyny that she has experienced in film and TV and added them to the mix as well. With Wyman’s insider take on academia and Peet’s experiences in the entertainment industry combined, The Chair is able to clearly and articulately engage with the subject matter. Peet is the showrunner and despite Wyman’s co-creator credit, the show’s tone has been set by Peet’s interests. If nothing else, the way the ensemble zooms around each other in conversation and consternation over matters of importance is certainly reminiscent of Peet’s foray into the Sorkinverse.

At the center of it all is Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh). Oh gets to put both her dramatic and comedic talents to work as the titular Chair, but almost every scene is laced with a sense of dread. This world is still standing stuck somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, if not the 19th, and was not built for someone like Professor Kim. It seems the entire establishment is set on undermining her and forcing her to fail. For quite a while it seems that the “Brilliant Mistake” being referenced was the idea of promoting Professor Kim to the department chair in the first place. This turns out not to be the case. The creators, the audience, and even most of the characters are all behind Ji-Yoon Kim’s ascension to department chair. The mistake is something else entirely.

Several people, with Professor Renz (Bob Balaban) on the right sit at a table looking toward the camera, with bookshelves behind them

That is a problem for the future, but unfortunately from the start of “Brilliant Mistake,” Ji-Yoon Kim is already not in the best situation. Her position as department chair is tenuous, her adopted daughter Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla) is making drawings of people getting their heads cut off, and everything seems to be on the verge of complete chaos. But Professor Kim seems able to handle it all. In the scenes with her daughter, Oh is empathetic and conveys a deep and knowing sadness that really contrasts to her take-charge nature with the other staff, and to her silly, semi-smitten, scenes with the most troublesome member of the faculty, Jay Duplass’s Bill Dobson.

Professor Kim’s role as the chair of the English department seems incredibly tenuous, as does the survival of the college as a whole. This means the stakes for the show are set pretty high, as it is the life and livelihood of all of these characters that are in the balance. Even though we have just been introduced to these particular people most of us know people who are in similar circumstances, trying desperately to stay relevant and employed. That makes it easy to see that a lot is on the line as the Dean (David Morse) interferes and obfuscates. Despite these challenges, Professor Kim keeps trying to pick up the pieces and turn the department into the ideal she hopes it can be. Rather than the inept mess it currently is. 

The inept mess is characterized by the “old guard” of professors that the Dean is trying to force into retirement. Of course, due to some exceptional acting and pitch-perfect writing, they also get the best and funniest moments of the pilot. Professors Elliot Rentz, Joan Hambling, and John McHale all represent some of the worst stereotypes of tenured intractability. Bob Balaban is a master of playing milquetoast narcissists and he does not disappoint here as he plays Rentz to stuffy, putzy, perfection. 

Holland Taylor’s work as Professor Joan Hambling is my favorite though. Taylor plays the role with the perfect mix of dry exasperation and dotty forgetfulness. She steals each of her scenes and when Professor Kim winds up abandoning her in the “Title IX” office and she has to eviscerate the intake officer’s choice of clothing, it is both hilarious and sad. Professor Hambling is still a formidable woman but the times have passed her by as well.

Professor Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor) looking through windows in a door while holding coffee
Photo courtesy of Netflix

There is an entirely separate plot throughout “Brilliant Mistake”, and it is far less successful. This is the Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) story and for much of history he, not Professor Kim, would have been the central character of the entire show. Unfortunately, he still eats up a giant amount of the plot of “Brilliant Mistake” and with the developments that happen, it seems likely he will be at least as central, if not more so, for the remainder of the season.

Bill is another professor in the English department, but his centrality is solidified by making him also have a plethora of other connections both to Ji-Yoon and to Pembroke. Bill is the former chair, with his departure being the main reason that Ji-Yoon got the job. He is also the single most well-known and renowned lecturer in the department. On the personal side, the character is also given a bunch of boxes to tick. He and Ji-Yoon have some sort of quasi-romantic relationship, his wife recently died, and he is a notorious drunk.

In addition to all of that underachieving white male nonsense threatening to overwhelm a show about the old guard and Sandra Oh that is actually intriguing, a lot of the comedy seems out of place. Instead of wordplay or deadpan looks from Bob Balaban and Holland Taylor we have Duplass stumbling around drunk, peeing in the parking lot, and sleeping on couches. (Though it must be said that Duplass is quite engaging doing all of that. It is the content that I’d rather not have; the actor is great.)

The Chair feels like it wants to be about the experience of a woman taking over one of the most patrician parts of the patriarchy, but it keeps veering away from that story and instead into the narrative of a flawed man-child who can’t help but make terrible decisions constantly.

Bill (Jay Duplass) standing in shrubbery with a quizzical look on his face

The worst of those terrible decisions comes near the end of “Brilliant Mistake” when Bill—just as he seems to be snapping out of the malaise he has been struggling through for the whole episode—begins his lecture by underlining “Fascism” on his chalkboard and giving a “nazi salute.” It is clear in context that this is not intended to be an endorsement of Nazism, quite the contrary in fact as it spurs Bill forward to stop moping and actually start to teach his class. He isn’t exactly doing it as a joke either, it is more of a reference, as he will note in the lecture to follow, to the absurdity and remove that is at the heart of “Modernism” as a concept. It is a brilliant device and seems effective, but that doesn’t mean it is not a gigantic misstep.

Absurdity is the great unifying, underlying quality of Modernism. After the horrors of two World Wars, the only recourse for the men (quite pointedly men) of the time was to detach and observe the bitter irony of life. This worldview would be the dominant one for a while, but—and this is the essential thing that Bill seems to have forgotten in his grief and disconnection—it was itself deconstructed. The world we live in is a postmodern world, where the key factor in looking at life is to understand the lenses through which people think, and therefore act. But the thing about the world we live in now is that it is not devoid of meaning at all. Everything we do is shaped by who we are and how we have had to experience the world, but that does not devalue those experiences, it enhances them. And so it is that the simple joking—an action that Bill unthinkingly did out of a pique of manic energy—actually has great and understandable meaning to the students and huge ramifications for Bill himself. 

It is not the action, nor anything to do with Professor Kim, but Bill himself who is the “Brilliant Mistake” of The Chair S1E1’s title. He is a brilliant professor, and the show has set him up as a loving and likable person, but he cannot seem to escape his doubt, his grief, and his fear.

As the season progresses it seems likely that this moment will be the central point for both Bill’s life and Professor Kim’s ability to perform the duties of the chair. The title of Bill’s class, “Death and Modernism” also seems to be a snapshot of the thematic areas the show wants to cover. The themes run throughout all the aspects of The Chair, from Professor Kim’s daughter’s drawings to Bill’s wife, to the very existential question of whether the department will survive. And now, after the events of the pilot, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim will have to guide everyone out of the fire, or else the anxieties of the world will overtake them all.

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

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One Comment

  1. This is the best review I have read on The Chair, especially the point of Professor Bill’s screen time of his irresponsible antics taking the viewer away from the plot. Rather than feeling enjoyment and satisfaction in viewing this series, I was anxious and frustrated that the main characters did not learn to set clear boundaries of unacceptability – from the daughter, whose out of control antics were not cute, but annoying, to Bill who though intelligent when he could be serious, too often just was a buffoon. Even the student’s protests were so disrupting that no one could get a sentence in without being drowned out. I think the viewer would like some ‘feel good’ moments instead of everything being an uphill battle. The actors played their parts well, however, the writers could tweak their lines in a more satisfying way for the viewer.