The Joke’s on Hitler in Smart New Netflix Comedy ‘The Chair’

A Hitler salute leads to unlikely laughs in Amanda Peet’s new campus comedy ‘The Chair,’ which also makes a very good Korea choice with its subplot. Plus, Harlan Coben’s ‘Gone for Good’

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Sandra Oh, Nana Mensah and Holland Taylor in new Netflix comedy "The Chair."
Sandra Oh, Nana Mensah and Holland Taylor in new Netflix comedy "The Chair."Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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When was the last time you saw something really funny on Netflix? I don’t mean an imported show like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Call My Agent!” Nor an unintentionally funny one like “Ratched,” which seemed to be written purely with a drinking game in mind (“Take a shot every time Sharon Stone plays with her monkey” – and no, this is not a euphemism).

I’m also not including a brilliant one-off comedy special like Bo Burnham’s “Inside,” which may end up being the show that best captures those long months of lockdown and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

No, what I’m referring to are Netflix-produced sitcoms and series that genuinely make you laugh out loud – if only there were a snappier way to write that – and introduce memorable, new characters into the pop culture lexicon.

That might seem a tad harsh – like asking Prof. Sarah Gilbert “Yeah, but what have you achieved since the vaccine?” But networks do it all the time. In Ted Lasso, Apple TV+ currently has television’s most memorable comic creation. And HBO just gave us a whole host of memorable characters and laughs in “The White Lotus” (the great news is that a second season is in the works, albeit on a different resort and with new characters). But who has Netflix sent forth into the world to make us laugh and generate water-cooler moments?

Congratulations if you answered “Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim” and “Prof. Bill Dobson,” because the new series “The Chair” is a breezy six-part comedy set in the world of academia that generates plenty of yuks and introduces memorable characters. It successfully manages to balance references to T.S. Eliot and critical race theory with plenty of zingers and slapstick humor from an excellent cast led by Sandra Oh.

Yes, it does shamelessly grab some low-hanging fruit – you’ll never guess what happens when someone starts burning a bunch of papers in her office – but doesn’t that fruit taste just as sweet as the harder-to-access stuff higher up? That was a genuine question, by the way: Should I be asking my grocer where the apples were located on those trees?

Not only is Sandra Oh’s Kim the first female chair of the English department at (the fictional) Pembroke College; she’s also the first person of color to fill the prestigious role – and all this at a faculty that is so overwhelmingly old and white, you could mistake it for a Fox News town hall.

To say that it is the best of times and the worst of times at Pembroke would only be half right, though it is safe to say that it is both the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness at this underperforming, poison-ivy-league institute.

The show, awash with Vivaldi on the soundtrack to presumably denote the “rarified air” of academia, was filmed at the rather attractive-looking Washington & Jefferson College and Chatham University, both in Pennsylvania. But while the buildings may make you wish you’d studied there, most of the lecturers won’t.

“The Chair” divides its time between campus high jinks among the aging professors – though definitely not the type seen in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” – and a family dynamic involving single mom Kim and her adopted young daughter JuJu (Everly Carganilla, risking arrest for the number of scenes she steals).

Everly Carganilla as JuJu and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in "The Chair."Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

It’s actually these domestic scenes between an American Korean mother and her daughter, and also Kim’s Korean widower father Habi (Ji-yong Lee), that feel the freshest and funniest to these eyes.

For instance, there’s a great line where Kim has to explain why her daughter isn’t allowed to take her Hello Kitty plush toy to her grandfather’s house (“She had to leave him at home because Dad hasn’t recovered from the Japanese occupation”).

There’s also a wonderful episode involving a Korean doljanchi ceremony celebrating a child’s first birthday. Said ceremony involves the youngster picking out an object out of several choices before them – like a paintbrush, pencil or banknote – that will supposedly mark out their future. Call it career choices. Or Korea choices.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into Korean culture (though Oh herself is Canadian, both her parents are Korean), and is in sharp contrast to the on-screen academic world, which is populated by some very familiar figures.

Here we encounter befuddled professors whose lecture notes were last updated prior to the invention of Microsoft Word. At the other end of the scale are painfully earnest students who really need to remove that shtick from their ass. Then there’s a dissolute didactic deity who gets into trouble after a video goes viral of him doing a Hitler salute during a lecture.

Jay Duplass's Prof. Bill Dobson finds himself under fire from the students in "The Chair." Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Okay, so that one is very different, and is also the third great reason to watch the show after Oh and the Korean angle. (A fourth is David Duchovny, having tremendous fun sending himself up in a cameo appearance as himself.)

Jay Duplass – probably best known on screen for playing Josh Pfefferman in “Transparent,” and off screen for his collaborations with brother Mark on the HBO shows “Togetherness” and “Room 104” (they also executive produced the recent excellent documentary “Not Going Quietly,” about activist Ady Barkan) – is Bill Dobson, a single dad who isn’t so much struggling to keep it together since his wife died a year ago and his daughter just went off to study at Columbia, as failing miserably.

Duplass has an easy charm and his chemistry with both Oh and her on-screen daughter provide the show with its beating, warm heart. He also gets some of the best lines, like when he’s being told to take a disciplinary hearing seriously after his Hitler fiasco (“I will not embarrass the Fatherland!”).

With a story arc that concludes at the end of six 30-minute episodes, “The Chair” often feels as if it could have worked just as well as a film (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it started life as a movie script and only later metamorphosed into a TV show).

Still, I’m glad the show’s creators – actress Amanda Peet (who starred in “Togetherness”) and writer Annie Julia Wyman (herself a postdoctoral lecturer at Stanford, so she knoweth of what she writeth when it comes to stuffy English departments) went for the longer-form approach, because there is plenty more to explore with these characters in potential future seasons.

For anyone who thinks the use of Hitler for comedic purposes is in poor taste, it’s worth noting that Peet is herself Jewish and that this particular storyline was inspired after she heard how Mel Brooks based the “Springtime for Hitler” song in “The Producers” on his desire to enjoy the last laugh over both the Führer and antisemites everywhere (including those he served with in the U.S. Army). And, yes, “Springtime for Hitler” does make a brief appearance in “The Chair.”

As amiable and enjoyable as the show is, a second season may not be able to avoid delving into the culture wars that seemingly dominate American campuses these days. That will be the big challenge because, unlike Hitler, that may prove no laughing matter.

‘Gone for Good’ (Netflix)

Talking of drinking games, here’s a Harlan Coben one guaranteed to get you drunk quicker than a Taliban advance.

All you have to do is take a sip whenever any of the following occur in a Coben show:

■ A caption appears reading “XX years earlier” / “XX years later.”

■ A person is missing, presumed dead, though their body has never been found.

■ A body is suddenly found in the woods, years after the person went missing.

■ The decision a character makes in their youth comes back to haunt them, just when they think they’ve moved on.

■ A woman in a car stares at the protagonist, before receding into the distance.

■ The story suddenly switches perspective to give us another character’s backstory.

■ A character says, “I must tell you something about my past – something … shameful.”

You’ll be pleased to hear that quite a few of these tropes are present in “Gone for Good,” the latest Coben adaptation to slip off the Netflix production line. This one has been relocated from the United States to southern France. It’s a fairly solid five-part thriller that’s better than some of his previous Netflix adaptations (like the Spain-set “The Innocent”) but below the gold standard, Polish-set “The Woods.” Damn – I almost resisted the urge to call him a Harlan globetrotter.

“Gone for Good” the novel is arguably one of Coben’s most Jewish stories – starting as it does with a shivah for the mom of its male protagonist, Will Klein. It even mentions a dance club at a Jewish Community Center in New Jersey, though the book’s most unbelievable plot point is surely that Will’s elder brother, Ken, was once a young tennis ace – which seems to fly in the face of all known Jewish sporting history.

All of that is jettisoned in this Gallic adaptation, with Will becoming the rather bland Guillaume Lucchesi (played by Finnegan Oldfield, whose distinctly un-French-sounding name can be blamed on his English roots). His rewarding life as a caseworker – helping homeless kids stay out of trouble on the sun-kissed streets of Nice – starts to unravel after he proposes to his girlfriend, Judith (Nailia Harzoune), and she reacts as if he’s just asked her to spend the week with him in Kandahar.

The show focuses on the backstory of a different character in each episode – another familiar Coben adaptation trope – and takes place over many different time periods and places. These stretch back to 2005, which also stretches the credulity of how little people apparently age in 15 years.

Guillaume Gouix, left, and Finnegan Oldfield as Daco and Guillaume in the Harlan Coben adaptation "Gone for Good."Credit: Magali Bragard / Netflix

Driving it all is the disappearance of two people – Judith and Guillaume’s long-dead brother, Fred (Nicolas Duvauchelle), whose love of white lines seemingly didn’t stop at the tennis court.

“Betrayal is the oldest crime,” the show’s tagline proclaims, though the mystery here is who’s doing the betraying. It’s not a huge mystery, to be honest, but it did keep me happily watching along. (One word of advice: Avoid the end credits until after episode five, because they inadvertently contain a major spoiler about one particular actress.)

“Gone for Good” the novel was preceded by Coben’s breakthrough hit “Tell No One.” I also watched the 2006 film adaptation of that one – also set in France – and what’s particularly noticeable after viewing both adaptations back-to-back is that Coben’s plot-heavy tales really need four or five hours in which to unpack all those backstories. Compressed into two hours, “Tell No One” becomes a blur of characters and incidents, some of which only make sense toward the story’s conclusion, but not in a satisfactory manner.

There are no such problems with “Gone for Good.” Instead, its biggest problem is some plot holes the size of a Renault Captur, which will leave you screaming at the screen, “Why is nobody mentioning this rather obvious point?!”

Nailia Harzoune as Judith in "Gone for Good."Credit: Magali Bragard / Netflix

In case you haven’t worked it out, I’m a sucker for Coben’s work – though I wasn’t such a fan of the unnecessarily violent “The Innocent” from earlier this year – and am already looking forward to the next Netflix adaptation on the horizon, the English-set “Stay Close.”

That’s probably why I’m willing to cut “Gone for Good” some slack re: those plot holes. In recompense, the show has some beautiful shots of the French Riviera and a topical subplot about neo-Nazis and the far-right – though when is that never topical? Still, even Amanda Peet might struggle to wring a few laughs out of that particular storyline.

“The Chair” drops on Netflix this Friday while “Gone for Good” is out now, also on Netflix.

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