Spend a bit of time with any progressive teenager, and regardless of your trailblazing bona fides, you might quickly be reduced to a conservative fuddy-duddy. That was the experience the actress and writer Amanda Peet had when her now 14-year-old daughter questioned Peet’s commitment to feminism after she criticized a scantily clad TikToker.
“Well, you know we are on the wrong side of history, right?” Peet, 49, said after I told her I’d had similar conversations with my own teenage daughters.
“So I tried to have this argument with her,” she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles earlier this month. “And early on, I got very into this idea of someone who thought of herself as a trailblazer and a feminist and now is thought of as part of the system.”
Plunk that someone into the middle of the campus culture wars, add romance, and you have the basis of Peet’s new six-part series for Netflix, “The Chair,” a sharp and often hilarious satire of contemporary academia disguised as a rom-com. Created by Peet with Annie Wyman, a screenwriter with a Ph.D in English literature from Harvard, the show, which debuts Friday, stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the embattled new chair of a fictional university’s struggling English department. She is the first woman to head the department — and a convenient sacrifice should a head need to roll.
At the same time, Ji-Yoon must manage a complicated home life and a budding romance with her longtime colleague-turned-subordinate Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), whose glib inability to read the moment becomes the catalyst for a spiraling controversy that threatens to end both of their careers.
“She’s a very modern woman,” Oh said with a sigh. “You know, one who is trying to balance being a mom, being a daughter, being the head of her department — and also navigating what is potentially a friendship that is budding into romance.”
“All while poisonous darts are being thrown at her,” she added.
“The Chair” is a feast for English geeks, crammed with Melville trivia and Chaucerian sex jokes. But given the sensitive nature of some of the subjects it takes on — including sexism, ageism, interracial adoption, white elitism and cancel culture itself — the pressure of overseeing the show, Peet’s first as showrunner, filled her with pure terror.
(Her husband, David Benioff, and his partner Dan Weiss, the creators of “Game of Thrones,” are executive producers as part of their overall deal with Netflix. Peet said jokingly that she was still upset that Benioff, who declined to be interviewed, didn’t prepare her better for the job.)
“I lost a lot of weight from pure anxiety and diarrhea,” she added, laughing.
Despite the heady subject matter, “The Chair” is no homework assignment. Oh and Duplass’s chemistry is undeniable. And the show is very funny.
Peet’s objective, she said, had always been to write a romantic comedy in the vein of “Tootsie” or “Broadcast News.”
“I didn’t set out to take a stand on anything,” she said. “I meant to truly make an intimacy piece and a workplace romantic comedy like the ones that I love.”
Yet amid the humor and the “will they won’t they” moments, life inside the academy is fraught, belying the idyllic surface of all that ivy and stately architecture. (“The Chair,” which was not based on any particular college or incident, was filmed at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh.) Older professors are being nudged aside, losing office space and enrollments. Those who are younger and better connected to their students are in turn disrespected by older colleagues.
Meanwhile, scandal is always just a viral video away, with a student body as unintimidated by tenured authority as it is idealistic.
“Academia is a pressure-cooker right now,” Peet said, fueled in part by “intergenerational tension” between the “young idealists,” the “middle-aged folks whose idealism has been tempered” and the “older folks who at one time considered themselves to be trailblazers.”
Oh was the only actress Peet imagined who could embrace all this mishegoss with empathy and hilarity. Who else, she asked, could both “do a pratfall and also pass as someone with a Ph.D in literature?”
Oh, 50, who has made a career of bringing humor to even the most awkward scenarios — like, say, her character’s sexually charged obsession with a serial killer in “Killing Eve” — was undaunted by the challenge. Rather, the show was an opportunity for Oh, who was born in Canada to Korean parents, to bring a nuanced portrayal of immigrant and first-generation life to the screen.
“This is the first time that I feel like I’ve played an Asian American character that was integrated in a way that I had not seen before, but I know is how we live,” she said in a video call from London, where she was shooting Season 4 of “Killing Eve.” “This is the stuff that I’ve always wanted to explore.”
Ji-Yoon’s life at home is specific and complex. She’s managing her aging Korean father, who prefers not to speak English, especially to his granddaughter, and is still mourning his wife’s death. Her adopted daughter, an obstinate 6-year-old (Everly Carganilla) who is of Philippine and Latin descent, is already asking a lot of questions. Ji-Yoon wants both to carry on the parenting traditions of her Korean culture and also honor the richness of her child’s own background.
“There’s a part of an audience that I’m very specifically interested in talking to about the Asian American experience,” Oh said while running her hands through her wild mane of curly hair. “I don’t really care if no one else gets it.”
“When you can see exactly what type of dumpling I am holding,” she added, “or you speak Kon-glish, it’s a specific thing that I’m interested in portraying now.”
Ultimately, the writing, Oh said, attracted her to the series. Nana Mensah, who plays the brilliant young professor Yaz McKay, seemed to agree. At first, Mensah was leery of Peet’s ability to accurately depict a Black woman’s struggles within a predominantly white world. But after reading the scripts, she found their accuracy “staggering,” the issues “very smartly handled.”
One of the major plotlines involves her character’s push to earn a much-deserved position with tenure — and Ji-Yoon’s wheeling and dealing to help make it happen, whatever demoralizing compromises she is forced to indulge. Both are repeatedly thwarted.
“I think what Amanda and the team got so right was that feeling of walking into a room and being outnumbered,” Mensah said. “The language around all of that can be very subtle. Nobody’s burning crosses in anybody’s front yard anymore.”
An extra four months of writing time, the result of a pandemic pause, helped Peet get the nuances right. “When you can put something in a drawer for a little while, try not to think about it and then take it back out, it’s kind of incredible,” she said with a pause. “It’s incredible how much I realized it sucked.”
On set, channeling those subtle tensions came perhaps a bit too naturally. Oh noted that the cast members Bob Balaban, Holland Taylor and Ron Crawford — all of whom are over 70 — were all working for weeks before the vaccine was available to them. The risk they faced added a layer of anxiety that matched the tension the writers were trying to depict in their portrayal of academia.
“Everyone is nervous about their future, nervous about their position,” Oh said of the characters. “And here you have, on the outside world, a pandemic going on, so everyone is sharing in that uniform tension.”
Oh applauded Peet’s work as a showrunner in keeping things improvisational and light — critical for the humor to fly on set. In one scene, her character is speaking to an older English professor, Elliot Rentz (Balaban), about his glory days at the university. The shared assumption, as Ji-Yoon understands it, is that those days have passed.
Elliot isn’t so sure. “Who says I’m not in my heyday now,” he retorts before flippantly tossing his hat onto a coat rack — only to see it tumble awkwardly to the floor. As Oh tells it, the beat was born of a moment of spontaneity, in which Peet suddenly grabbed a hat off her first assistant director, Drew Langer, and asked Balaban to toss it.
“She’s firing very quickly,” Oh said.
Given the ages of the leading cast and creators, most of whom are over 45, it might have been easy to simply skewer Gen Z campus wokeness and have the last laugh. But it was important to those interviewed that various perspectives be considered.
Duplass’s character, Bill, a recently widowed and popular professor, finds himself in the vortex of those opposing currents on campus. An offensive gesture that he intended ironically is taken out of context and goes viral. Protests are organized against him. A young MAGA-type applauds him for defending “free speech.”
“I feel like Amanda put me in the deepest, darkest hole she could find and said ‘All right, bud, good luck,’” said Duplass, 48, who was also a creative consultant for the show. “‘See if you can climb out of this.’”
In an early episode, Bill believes he can rely on his charm and intellectual talents to calm a gathering of angry students. Halfway through his painfully inadequate non-apology, he realizes he is so out of his depth, it almost takes his breath away.
“That’s my biggest beat change in the whole season,” Duplass said. It is the moment when his character realizes that “the patriarchy is ending right here and right now. The privileges I have held up until this moment are over.”
Yet in Peet’s world, no one is safe and there are no heroes.
“She did not hold back on making fun of anyone,” Duplass continued. “The professors and the kids are all the smartest people in the land, and they’re all [expletive] idiots.”