Monday, 27 September 2021

Streaming on Netflix - Barrie Pattison discovers THE CHAIR (Amanda Peet & Annie Julia Wyman, USA, 2021) and harks back to some other educational institutions

Sandra Oh, The Chair

I have tried a couple of episodes of Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman’s streamed Sandra Oh series
 The Chair and found it was notably relevant to the Australian scene. Sandra is heading up the English Department on a campus where funding problems make them plan on cutting down in favour of more saleable courses. Scott Morrison upping the fees for the humanities anyone?

The Chair registers intermittently. New Board Chairman Sandra is making a pitch for the dignity of classical education with the edit to Jay Duplass, one of her key lecturers, stealing a luggage cart to get back to base or the glimpse of Sandra and senior lecturer Holland Taylor (Two and a Half Men) looking at the gym where half-naked jocks work out. The basement there is where her office has been relocated.


Jay Duplass, The Chair

One of the key plot streams has Duplass doing a Nazi salute in class to make a point, with the smart phone coverage going viral. When they try to reign him in, Duplass breaks out in a chorus of “Springtime for Hitler”, a culturally significant choice. The more politically correct students turn into a lynch mob.


It’s not the first time we’ve been here. The Good Girl episode of  Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin’s excellent Richard Dreyfuss University-set series The Education of Max Bickford  (2001-2002) has a girl student who’s done a centerfold. One of the more religious-minded of her classmates feels she has violated moral standards and urges shunning. Dreyfuss has to hose down this one saying “Shunning is a seriously bad idea.” Not even injecting Peter O’Toole into the series saved it.


My favorite among the David Kelley shows was Boston Public (2000 to 2004). They showed teacher Nicky Katt bringing a gun to class to make an (anti-violence) point and the repercussions on that one keep several episodes running. When Katt’s character later leaves the school (and the series) principal Chi McBride watches him go and says “I’ve lost my best teacher.” 


We can even consider Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) where the 1993 Ep. Something in the Air has Tori Spelling facing the prospect of being suspended for getting drunk on Prom Night and the students turn out to do a “Donna Martin graduates” demo.


Going even further back there’s the 1967 The Rebels episode of  Brodkin’s Coronet Blue, Larry Cohen series (with then unknowns Candice Bergen and David Carradine) where the Fugitive-like central character gets himself mixed up with Campus radicals.


Holland Taylor, The Chair

Freedom of expression, which rarely gets a mention in these, mixing with student activism is a potent formula. It protrudes from the surface of such wider ranging, not otherwise related efforts too often for it to be an accident. You can ask whether it had been a frequent life shaping experience for the writers and showrunners or whether it was something they picked up in their contemporary societies.


However, these swim against the tide. In the sixties and seventies in particular, TV was thought of as a way to reach older family members sitting about in the home to watch it, while protestor friendly films, like Stuart Hagmann’s 1970 The Strawberry Statement or Rob Cohen’s excellent 1980 A Small Circle of Friends catered to younger people who used the cinemas. Karen Black got action representing youth in both markets, being sexy-sympathetic in movies and a crazed fanatic on TV.


Well that was then and this is now. The thing which will draw me back to The Chair is seeing the way they resolve the Duplass protest plot more than Sandra Oh’s sex life or penury in the English department. It’s unsafe to draw conclusions from single examples or even a small number but it is an indicator. Are we going to detect a shift in attitudes?

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