What is the best way to deal with critical customer feedback? Well, Joan, a veteran academic at the fictional Pembroke College, an almost-Ivy League American university, knows exactly what to do with it. She quietly puts a match to reams of negative student evaluations of her work.
It is an amusing, angry scene that takes place inside her grim, cellar-like university study and occurs somewhere towards the middle of new six-part television drama The Chair. But it is also a moment that sits right at the show’s emotional core. Joan is clearly doing wrong, but her diminished status as an ageing, overlooked lecturer makes her a sympathetic figure.
The Chair is the latest Netflix drama series to hit that coveted streaming sweet spot – appealing to many of the streaming service’s educated, and perhaps older, viewers, and delighting the pundits. As website The Ringer noted last week, the show bears the hallmarks of authenticity, speaking “to all-too-real anxieties among the intellectual set”, while also giving more racy Netflix fare a run for its money. It stayed within the top 10 most popular titles throughout its first week.
This witty series also, oddly, comes with the added stamp of approval from the makers of the gory Game of Thrones, partly because the show’s main creator, Amanda Peet, is married to one of its showrunners, David Benioff, who produces The Chair.
As a result, the academic English department “chair” of the title has already been widely compared to the totemic “throne” of the hit TV saga, based on the books of George RR Martin. But for all its conniving and politicking, The Chair is a comedy, as well as a touching drama, and nobody is going to be cleft in twain with a pickaxe.
Peet, who worked in collaboration with the former Harvard and Cambridge academic Annie Julia Wyman to fine-tune her approach, has somehow managed to make a show that fuses the wise-cracking bonhomie of the French series Call My Agent! with the biting relevance of a critique of campus “cancel culture”.
What’s more, while Joan’s petty pyrotechnics in her study prove dangerous, Peet seems to have fireproofed her own treatment of some of the most incendiary issues around. Micro-aggressions, failed allyship, establishment white privilege: these are some of the modern tripwires through which her characters must step.
“Where other TV shows would lay the blame solely at the feet of hysterical students or evil teachers, The Chair manages to demonstrate the layers at play for both factions without feeling like it’s equivocating too much to have any real bite,” Variety’s critic has judged.
So how did Peet do it? She has claimed the idea came to her while she was trying to write a romcom for one of the show’s stars, Jay Duplass. As she worked on it, thoughts of a wider story that would showcase the clashing ideological viewpoints of different generations of learned liberals just would not go away. “I loved this idea of having young idealists, then people whose idealism had softened, then older folks who once thought of themselves as progressive but are now just seen as part of the system, part of the white patriarchy. I thought that could be rich territory for a workplace comedy.”
For some viewers, Peet – all glossy locks and broad grin – might be almost as familiar as her lead cast members in The Chair, Duplass and Sandra Oh (she of Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve renown). She started out working in Hollywood as an actress and has recently appeared on screen with Duplass in the HBO comedy Togetherness, co-created by Duplass and his brother Mark.
This role in two seasons of a show that was popular, but not quite popular enough, followed early acting success on the big screen. Prominent film roles in British director Jonathan Lynn’s commercial hit The Whole Nine Yards and in Saving Silverman led to a part in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. In 2005, she also won acclaim for her performance in A Lot Like Love, opposite Ashton Kutcher. But gradually, as Peet aged, she started to worry about her future as a performer in an industry where youth was crucial for leading ladies. So, for now, she has turned to writing.
New Yorker Peet, 49, is the daughter of a psychiatrist, and reportedly started her own analysis sessions at 14, staying at home to attend college at Columbia in Manhattan so she could be close to her therapist – possibly the perfect start for someone whose job is to tell clever jokes and reveal the motivations hidden in dialogue.
It was comedy that gave her some of her first breaks, including an appearance in Garry Shandling’s influential The Larry Sanders Show and in a famous Seinfeld episode, The Summer of George. She met Benioff, with whom she has three children, shortly after success in A Lot Like Love, and now inevitably moves among some of the biggest names in entertainment. Sarah Paulson and Peter Dinklage are good pals.
Peet says her research for The Chair involved talking to lots of academics on the phone, as well as working with Wyman, and she has admitted feeling intellectually intimidated. “But the more I got into it, the more these professors were telling me, ‘This is a soap opera’,” Peet said in an interview with Variety.
“So, the more people I spoke to, the more it seemed like it could be rich with possibility. Beyond what I was reading in the headlines, there were a lot of professors who wanted to speak about their experiences – experiences as women getting tenure, experiences with students, experiences in schools that are very old-fashioned still.”
And, as British viewers react to the show, it appears to have rung at least partly true among academics here. Emily Butterworth, a senior lecturer in French at King’s College London, is impressed. “The show was hugely enjoyable, and Sandra Oh is completely watchable and compelling. It captured really well the kind of earnest over-investment in what seem trivial circumstances in academia (who does the photocopying, where your office is) while also pointing out the longstanding injustices of those circumstances, and the nonchalance of those who have not had to think particularly about the academic hierarchy – who have rather just taken it, and their place in it, for granted.”
Butterworth does feel that the portrayal of the older faculty members verges on caricature, but Oh’s thoughtful performance repeatedly won her over.
On the whole, the comic exaggerations of The Chair are carefully earned by Peet. The key transgressive act in the plot – a silly mistake made in class by Duplass’s melancholy widower Bill – is properly explained to the audience as part of his mildly arrogant approach to undercutting the pompous side of the world of English literature.
Of course, outside the world of TV comedy, real campus rows about inappropriate comments are not always so easy to dismiss. Yet Peet’s success with The Chair is not achieved by simply sidestepping the gravity of the debate. There is real fire in the anger of Joan, a battle-worn feminist academic who is labelled as part of the privileged old school.
Perhaps Peet identifies with Joan, played beguilingly by Holland Taylor. As a female actor, the writer recently spoke of often feeling overlooked on set and of an unrolling vista ahead of parts as girlfriends or wives. “Part of it was because I worked with the wrong people,” Peet revealed to Variety.
“And part is, you want to be liked so you need to be quiet and easy, to be chill – especially for actresses. As soon as you say, ‘Hey, on page 67, I was just wondering if this moment is tracking’, you can just see the writer and the showrunner and the director being, like, ‘Here we go’.”
Now at last, in the guise of the feisty characters played on screen by Holland and Oh, as well as on the set of her own hit show, Peet gets to sit in the most important chair and call the big decisions.