This is truly a family show that feels both real and aspirational.
Well, it’s not completely dead.
Latin—now there’s a dead language for you. Sumerian? Yeah, you don’t hear that on the streets too often. And I seriously doubt that many people, when they leave a note for their spouse on the refrigerator, jot down Egyptian hieroglyphics on the family chalkboard.
By that measure, English is alive and well. Why, I’m writing in English right now, and you’re understanding me perfectly fine!
But let’s be honest: This version of English is hardly what Shakespeare or Milton would consider great writin’. Plugged In put away all its uses of thee and thou and all them highfalutin thingamabobs, oh, weeks ago.
And as subpar is it may be, even this form of English is practically archaic. If I wos writing this review 4U on Twitter itd lack punctuation and rite speling but have lotz of #hashtags and stuff, IMHO. If I sent you a text review, it might be loaded with a few hundred emojis, connected by the occasional “and” and “however.” Or maybe just a couple of fun GIFs of Kevin Hart and SpongeBob.
English might not be dead, exactly, but it sure is changing. And so are prestigious collegiate English departments. Just ask Ji-Yoon Kim: She knows all about it.
Ji-Yoon is the very first woman, and minority, to chair the English department for Pembroke University—an institution that looks like it missed the Ivy Leagues by just a couple of leaves. And for a good 150 years or so (judging by the bearded guys staring out of the college’s many paintings), Pembroke has prided itself on its traditional educational excellence.
But traditional educational excellence doesn’t always put rear-ends in the seats these days—not in the English department, anyway. Some of the faculty look like they knew the bearded folks in the paintings, and many are talking about writers way older than that. In a 21st-century world saturated in tech and code, Moby Dick and Emily Dickinson just don’t seem as relevant as they used to. Enrollment in the department is down 30%, and some wonder whether there’ll even be an English department soon. English might be alive, but English majors? They’re a dying breed.
But Ji-Yoon knows that English lit is more than something to slap on a resume as a “skill.” She has some innovative ideas to regenerate enthusiasm for her chosen subject, and she can’t wait to put them into action.
If she can find the time.
It’s hard, given that the college’s dean is pressuring her to get rid of her oldest and highest-paid professors. Young, passionate teachers like Yaz McKay are popular with the students, but less so with the university’s old guard. And then there’s her star professor—well-regarded novelist (and Ji-Yoon’s old lover) Bill Dobson—who’s lost in a spiral of what seems to be willful self-destruction. Oh, and did we mention that Dobson was also the former department chair, too?
And we haven’t even mentioned Ji-Yoon’s adorable-but-troubled adopted daughter, Ju-Ju, whose favorite art subject is murder.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It seems as though Ji-Yoon has two very unique, and very unhappy, families to juggle.
Netflix’s The Chair may be set in a literary ivory tower. But this show does not relish the dense prose, contextual ambiguity and 27 layers of meaning that you might find in, say, James Joyce. It’s more straightforward than that, and so is this review.
The SparkNotes takeaway: It’s … got some issues.
As an old English lit major myself, I share some sympathies with the characters we meet here. Like Ji-Yoon, I love a good book, and I think that the stuff you can glean from literature can pay massive dividends—even if it doesn’t help with, y’know, your actual pay.
And the characters we meet feel real—like fully formed people with comic traits and tragic flaws who mostly try to be decent folks. Ji-Yoon’s relationship with her daughter is one of the most striking aspects of the show, for example: You can see her uncertainty as an adoptive parent, her worry that her child is going astray, but her determination to be the best mom she can be. It should be noted, too, that Ji-Yoon’s father, who often babysits Ju-Ju, is a Christian (judging by the crosses and pictures of Jesus on his wall)—and so far a reasonably good role model, too.
But none of that mitigates the show’s problems—its preoccupation with sex, nudity, drug use and language. And often, these elements feel as though they distract from the story rather than add much to it—tawdry trinkets thrown to a desensitized audience to keep them paying attention.
This uncomfortable comedy offers some interesting insights and engaging characters. But setting those elements aside, Plugged In would like to put this Chair in a corner.
Ji-Yoon and the rest of the English professors attend a faculty party. But after Ju-Ju runs away from her grandfather’s house, she and Bill Dobson leave to track her down and nearly wind up having sex. Meanwhile, a video of Bill doing a Hitler salute in class goes viral around Pembroke.
Ju-Ju walks in on a woman trying to go to the bathroom (we see her sitting on the toilet) and asks her (in so many words) whether she has pubic hair (and if she could see it). Later, Ju-Ju (who’s adopted) yells at Ji-Yoon, telling her that she’s not her real mother. When Bill is trying to encourage Ji-Yoon to sleep with him, he candidly talks about his erection and how he wants to “get in your pants.” Joan, an elderly professor, seems to casually flirt with Bill. A smitten undergrad tells her friend that Bill is “totally hot.” Student evals compare Bill’s class with a flaccid penis. A professor descriptively talks about how well his colonoscopy went.
Bill smokes a marijuana joint during the faculty party, offering it to Ji-Yoon (who accepts and, awkwardly, discovers she has to make a speech right after). Most everyone at the party drinks wine, and at least one professor over-imbibes. Bill drinks beer at a bowling alley. Someone’s foot is run over by a car, and he’s later offered their choice of prescription pain-killers. Characters say the f-word seven times and the s-word four. We also hear three misuses of God’s name.
It’s Ji-Yoon Kim’s first day as the chair of Pembroke University’s English department, and the challenges she faces are daunting. Faced with falling enrollment, the dean pressures her to get rid of aging and expensive professors—something she’s not willing to do. One of her professors, grieving over the death of his wife, is constantly drunk and often missing. And Ji-Yoon’s daughter is drawing some pretty disturbing pictures in class.
How disturbing? Ju-Ju’s crayon drawing features an adult woman crying waterfalls of tears as a grinning little girl seems to take a saw to her (very long) neck. “This is going to hapin to you,” the caption reads. Ju-Ju also frets about what would happen to her should her mom die. “When you die, will you still remember me?” she asks Ji-Yoon. Ji-Yoon says yes, but Ju-Ju still refuses a hug and a kiss goodnight.
If Ji-Yoon’s having issues, they’re nothing compared to that of professor Bill Dobson. Still mourning the death of his wife, Bill downs scads of beers after taking his daughter to the airport, urinates in the parking lot and loses his car. He steals (and crashes) a golf cart and somehow makes his way home to pass out. Bill eventually makes it to class (late), but he doesn’t remember what he’s teaching. And when he tries to show his classroom a video, it turns out it’s a vid of his topless, pregnant wife. (Students get an eyeful, as do we.) We learn that he and Ji-Yoon had an affair.
Bill accepts an ill-advised ride from a fawning undergraduate student. (She tells Bill, who’s also an accomplished novelist, that “in my family you’re like a household god.”) A professor teaches a class on “Sex and the Novel” (which proves to be a wildly popular course). Ji-Yoon and another professor, Joan, ogle shirtless male college students lift weights. Joan also calls out a volunteer for a Title IX chapter (which evaluates accusations of sexism on the campus) for wearing short-shorts and exposing too much of her rear end to visitors.
Bill asks his students how many are “drunk” or “stoned” in class right now. (He’s probably a bit impaired, too.) He tries to make a point about fascism and absurdism by doing a Nazi salute (which students record). We hear or see the f-word 10 times and the s-word six times. “A–” is also uttered, as are two misuses of God’s name and one abuse of Jesus’ name.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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