'The Chair'
Source: Netflix

Is the Netflix Dramedy, 'The Chair,' Based on a True Story?

By

Aug. 25 2021, Published 5:02 p.m. ET

Netflix's latest hit series is The Chair, which tells the story of Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the newly-appointed chair of the English department at Pembroke University. As the first woman to take on the position in the struggling department, Ji-Yoon immediately deals with a lot of pressure – which is exacerbated even further when her colleague (and love interest) Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) is accused of making an offensive gesture.

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The show takes cancel culture head-on, and it also focuses on the sexism and ageism that continue to plague universities that are claiming to be progressive.

Co-created by actress Amanda Peet and Harvard PhD. holder Annie Wyman, The Chair aims to provide a realistic look at the world of academia. Is the show based on a true story?

'The Chair'
Source: Netflix
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Is 'The Chair' based on a true story?

While Pembroke University is supposed to feel like an authentic, small, liberal arts college, The Chair is not based on one particular institution or event.

The series is, instead, inspired by the financial, social, and business issues that affect campuses throughout the U.S. From the disagreements about teaching styles within departments and students' desire to affect change to the quick-moving nature of cancel culture, The Chair covers various conflicts that are going on at schools around the country.

The English department at the fictional university, which is said to be at around the same level as an Ivy League institution on the show, is representative of many colleges. There are older, tenured professors who have been teaching the same material for decades (and who, therefore, often have lower enrollment). There are also younger scholars who are looking to relate to their students, while also pointing out the flaws in those whom they are studying.

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Then there's the issue of Bill Dobson, who makes a Nazi salute during a lecture about fascism. The motion is recorded by his students, and it's subsequently disseminated around Pembroke. Student protests then begin to call for Bill to apologize, or to potentially get fired. The series explores whether he can make a genuine apology, and how the optics of the situation can affect his tenured job.

'The Chair'
Source: Netflix
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Likewise, the inclusion of the David Duchovny storyline is another all-too-realistic plotpoint. He's hired as a lecture speaker for Pembroke, which highlights out how often schools use celebrities and other stars to increase student participation at campus-wide events, or to get press for more applications.

In a press package for the series, lead actress Sandra Oh, discussed the purpose of the show.

"It explores how behind the times higher education can be. But, it wants to be, and can be, at the forefront of thought," she said. "It could be a place where movements begin or young people are really starting to explore concepts or opinions for the first time. It should be on the forefront. But I feel like we all know it needs to question itself just like all of us at this point need to question ourselves."

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Beth Nguyen, a college professor and author, wrote about the accuracy of 'The Chair.'

Novelist Beth Nguyen, who currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote an article for Time about The Chair. The piece covered how realistic she found the series to be in comparison to her own experience as a professor in higher education.

'The Chair'
Source: Netflix

"Ji-Yoon's experience feels real because of the way she falls into the trap of trying to live up to every expectation. University systems were built on this: we are told to prove we deserve to be there, prove we deserve tenure, prove the value of our programs and departments through enrollment ("butts in seats!" Pembroke's dean says, echoing administrators across the land), prove the value of our research and, too often, prove the value of our very identities," she wrote.

The Chair Season 1 is available to stream on Netflix now.

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