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'The Chair' on Netflix: Sandra Oh leads a story 'ahead of the time' on academia, motherhood and middle-aged romance

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Stars of the new Netflix series The Chair (debuting on Friday, Aug. 20), with Canadian Sandra Oh in the lead role, describe the show as “ahead of the time” in tackling issues in academia and a uniquely “sexy” look at honest, middle-aged romance.

“I felt like there was a lot of overlap between me and Yaz, the character, and I thought that it was exciting to show something that hadn't been seen before,” Nana Mensah who plays professor Yasmin “Yaz” McKay told Yahoo Canada.

“Frankly, it was a little ahead of the time in terms of speaking about academia, speaking about women of colour in academia and the things that they face, not generically, but very specifically this one woman.”

The Chair begins as Oh, who plays Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, steps into her new role as the chair of the English department at the prestigious Pembroke University. She is the first woman to ever hold the position and one of only a few women of colour in the department.

Ji-Yoon grapples with supporting professor Yaz, a progressive and young Black professor, while balancing the needs of her older colleagues and managing requests from the university's dean, played by David Morse.

Holland Taylor as Joan, Nana Mensah as Yaz, and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in episode 102 of
Holland Taylor as Joan, Nana Mensah as Yaz, and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in episode 102 of "The Chair" (ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX)

This tension culminates in a moment when Yaz tells Ji-Yoon she’s acting like she’s the chair of the department because “they let you be here, not because you deserve it.”

“That feels like life, right?” Mensah said. “That feels like politics,...that feels like the world that we're living in right now, it’s the radicals versus the incrementalists.”

“I think a lot of times when people think about minorities in predominantly white spaces it can be a little bit hand-fisted and what I thought was lovely about that scene, and that line in particular, was that it was really shining a light on the nuance of the way people exist in those spaces.”

Holland Taylor as Joan in episode 103 of
Holland Taylor as Joan in episode 103 of "The Chair" (ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX)

The older professors at Pembroke University’s English department, including those played by Holland Taylor, Bob Balaban and Ron Crawford, are a great grouping to tackle questions around ageism and resistance to change in this institution.

“I’ve known Holland Taylor since I was 22 years old,...we've never stopped being friends,” Balaban said. "We had a kind of bond going from years ago."

"And Ron is one of the most naturally charming, funny, easygoing people you could know. He's really wonderful, he just opens his mouth and if he says hello, it’s great.”

Taylor, who plays Joan, puts her exceptional comedy skills on full display in The Chair, while also effortlessly transitioning to questions around the long history of sexism at Pembroke University.

Randy Kovitz as Professor Reinhardt, Richard R. Applegate as Professor Jim, Ron Crawford as Professor McHale, and Bob Balaban as Rentz in episode 101 of
Randy Kovitz as Professor Reinhardt, Richard R. Applegate as Professor Jim, Ron Crawford as Professor McHale, and Bob Balaban as Rentz in episode 101 of "The Chair (ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX)

It’s the expertly timed comedy that makes The Chair incredibly appealing. The characters are smart and witty, striking a great balance between the analytical and the hilarious.

“It could have gone in many different ways, it could have been angry, it could have been sillier and Amanda [Peet] and our wonderful director [Daniel Gray Longino] struck a beautiful tone,” Balaban said. “They quickly told you if you were off, and it didn't happen much, but somebody would come running up and say, ‘No, just yell at them, don't act too much, just kind of talk loud right now.’”

“The simple thing is, life is funny and sad. If it's all funny, it's not true, and if it's all sad, it's not true. Knowing how to balance is one of the hardest things that happens in a TV series or a movie, and I thought everybody here got it right in the groove.”

Everly Carganilla as Ju Ju and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in episode 102 of
Everly Carganilla as Ju Ju and Sandra Oh as Ji-oon in episode 102 of "The Chair" (ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX)

Avoiding the 'Disney-fied version of motherhood'

While the world of Pembroke University is at the core of the series, so too is Ji-Yoon’s personal life. She’s a single working mom to her adopted daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carginilla), trying to balance her personal and professional priorities.

“When we went out to cast the role of Ju Ju we weren't attached to casting any particular race or ethnicity and then once we had Everly, Sandra and I both thought it was really important to put into the script that she has different colour skin than her mom, and that this was a transracial adoption,” co-creator/writer/executive producer Amanda Peet (also an actor herself) explained to Yahoo Canada. “It was really important to both of us, I think, to avoid the sort of Disney-fied version of motherhood.”

“I don't relate to a lot of the moms I see on TV and movies and Sandra and I talked a lot about zeroing in on a mother-daughter relationship that isn't entirely aspirational, but one that's a battle, but it's also endearing.”

Hay Duplass as Bill and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in episode 101 of
Hay Duplass as Bill and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in episode 101 of "The Chair" (ELIZA MORSE/NETFLIX)

Creating a child character who is a 'pain in the ass'

In terms of her personal life, Ji-Yoon is also working through her relationship with her friend, beloved English professor Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass, which is seemingly becoming something more romantic. As Bill faces harsh criticism from his students after a video of him making a controversial gesture in class goes viral, Ji-Yoon, as chair of the department, is called on to hold him accountable, impacting their personal relationship.

While their work lives are clearly on display, it’s actually Bill’s relationship with Ju Ju that makes an even more significant impact in the trajectory of Ji-Yoon and Bill’s personal connection.

“At first I thought it might be a little tricky, honestly, just because I had the same desires as Amanda, and this stuff that she and I had talked about for several years, about the idea of creating a child character on screen that's frankly, a fucking pain in the ass, because most kids are a fucking pain in the ass,” Duplass, a father himself, explained to Yahoo Canada.

“I think in retrospect, the idea that Bill’s romance with Ji-Yoon involves her daughter is the most honest and exciting, and true thing about middle-age dating. I just found that to be so fascinating and frankly sexy, the idea that Bill not only will tolerate her daughter, but he loves her genuinely. It’s so complicating and also incredibly sexy for a relationship between people in their mid-to-late 40s.”

The Chair aims to tackle a lot in just six half-hour episodes, but there's no denying Oh's exceptional ability to take on a lead character, dealing with many complex, nuanced issues, in a way that's still engaging.

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