The Chair – S01E01 – Brilliant Mistake [Transcript]

With the department facing budget cuts and low enrollment, Ji-Yoon vows to make some changes as chair while one professor struggles to keep it together.
The Chair - Season 1

Original release date: August 20, 2021

At the English department meeting, Ji-Yoon tells her colleagues enrollment in their courses are down. The Dean tells Ji-Yoon she must remove three members from her department due to low enrollment. Ji-Yoon tells Yaz to combine her lecture section with Elliot’s, who is supposed to be chairing Yaz’s tenure case. In the combined class, Elliot treats Yaz like a teaching assistant rather than a co-professor. Bill becomes intoxicated and shows up late for his class and accidentally broadcasts an intimate video of him and his deceased wife to the students. The next day, Bill again arrives late to class, then uses the Nazi salute in teaching absurdism and fascism. Some students record this gesture on their phones. Ji-Yoon tells Joan she will file a Title IX report because her office was moved to the basement. Joan gets into a verbal argument with the Title IX investigator. At home, Ji-Yoon’s father tells her Ju Ju’s teacher wants her to go into therapy for a disturbing picture she drew of Ji-Yoon dying.

* * *

[“Vivaldi: Gloria in D Major, RV 589” playing]

♪ Gloria, Gloria ♪

♪ Gloria, Gloria ♪

♪ In excelsis Deo ♪

♪ Gloria, Gloria ♪

♪ Gloria, Gloria ♪

♪ In excelsis Deo ♪

♪ Gloria in excelsis ♪

♪ Gloria in excelsis Deo ♪

♪ In excelsis ♪

[chair snaps]

What the fuck?

[thuds on floor]


[indistinct chatter]

Ah! There she is. [applauding]

[man] Woman of the hour.



Ah, condolences.

Oh, thank you. Where’s Joan?

I don’t know.

Welcome back, everyone.

Here’s a little swag from Dean Larson.

[man 2] Whoa.

Our first lady chair.

Woman chair.

Aren’t you gonna sit at the head of the table?

Chair sits at the head of the table.

Thank you, Elliot.

Don’t mind if I do.


Is this green or brown?

Let’s try this again. It’s lovely to see you all.

In a couple of minutes, we’ll know if that was right.

Okay, first order of business…

Bill’s not here.

Maybe we could cut him some slack, given his situation.

Bill is sending his daughter off to college. He’ll be here any minute.

[girl] Hey.

Get your shit together.

I’m gone now, and that’s the way it’s gonna be for the rest of your life.

Um, you’re not… gone.

Yes, I am.

And what happened, happened.

[inhales deeply]

The time when people were, like, leaving casseroles and whatever at the house, it’s over.

Okay. Are you finished?

Yes, I’m done.

[Bill] Okay.

I’m not gonna miss you. I’m just gonna miss this guy and this guy.


[Bill] Goodbye to you and you.

Uh-huh, okay.

Go. Get outta here.

Text me when you land.

[girl] Okay, stalker.

I’m not gonna sugarcoat this. We are in dire crisis.

Enrollments are down more than 30%.

Our budget is being gutted.

It feels like the sea is washing the ground out from under our feet.

But in these unprecedented times, we have to prove that what we do in the classroom…


…modeling critical thinking, stressing the value of empathy, is more important than ever, and has value to the public good.


It’s true, we can’t teach our students coding or engineering.

What we teach them cannot be quantified or put down on a résumé as a skill.

[keys jangling]

But let us have pride in what we can offer future generations.


We need to remind these young people that knowledge doesn’t just come from spreadsheets or… or Wiki entries.

Hey, I was thinking this morning about our tech-addled culture, and… and how our students are hyperconnected 24 hours a day, and I was reminded of something, um, Harold Bloom wrote.

He said, “Information is endlessly available to us. Where shall wisdom be found?”

[door opens]

They moved my office to the basement under the gym.



All my books, my… my stuff, my drawers, dumped into these open carts that are sitting on the floor of the basement over there right now.


Why would they do that?

I heard a rumor.

They’re forcing everybody over 55 to take early retirement.

[man 3] This is the beginning of the end.

Okay, people. People, let’s try not to panic.

Well, it’s easy for you to say. You’re 51.

I’m 46.

You’re kidding.

[inhales deeply]

I want to make you this promise.

I will not allow this department to be ransacked.

This is a list of names.

These folks have the highest salaries and lowest enrollments in your department.

I’m sorry to spring this on you your first week.

There’s no one here who’s dispensable.

Oh, come on. These old-timers?

They’re averaging five students a course.

I mean, I’m not denying their profound contribution to American letters, but…

[Joan] I got it!

[Larson]…we’ve been offering very generous retirement packages, and…

So, before I bring out the stick, maybe you could use your persuasive powers as chair.

I’ve got some ideas on how to increase enrollments.

Now, Yasmin McKay is up for tenure this year.

I wanted to talk to you about giving her the Distinguished Lectureship.

We can’t talk about opening any lines, or the Distinguished Lectureship.

Student enrollment was down before. Now it’s catastrophic.

Is that why you put Joan in the basement of the wellness center?

How’d that happen? Oh, let me talk to Deb.

Now, listen. I know you, um… I know you had big plans for this year.

I know this place is antiquated. A lumbering dinosaur.

But you remember when I… when I called you, told you you had tenure?

Remember what I said?

If anyone can bring Pembroke into the 21st century, it is you.


I just need three names.

[classical music playing]


Is this Sex and the Novel?

Oh, no, this is Survey of American Letters 1850 to 1918!

My office hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:00 to 2:00, but you can really come anytime because I basically live here.

Oh! If any of you are on the wait list, shoot me an email.

[classical music continues]

[indistinct chatter]

Hey. Thank you so much for agreeing to chair my tenure case.

Ji-Yoon just gave me the news.


Are… Are you okay?

Why’d she schedule two American Lit courses at the same time?

Oh, uh, I don’t know.

Maybe she thought that our content was different enough.

Sex and the Novel? That’s what you’re calling this?


[gasps] You know, actually, I have a list of external reviewers.

Um… [smacks lips]

Where is it? Shoot, did I…

[footsteps receding]

[Ji-Yoon] Between you and me, he’s on the list.

What list?

What if we combined your sections?

You want me to co-teach with the chair of my tenure committee?

I want him to see you in action in the classroom.

He’s gonna think I’m his TA.

There’s no way he’s gonna be able to dismiss you when he sees how fuckin’ brilliant you are!

I already set my syllabus, so…

Listen, when Bill was an undergrad, Elliot was the one who packed the halls here.

You couldn’t even get into his lectures without special permission unless you…

Yeah, and he hasn’t updated those lectures in like 30 years.


He makes or breaks careers.


[Ji-Yoon] Yaz, I get it. When I started, it was like,

“Why’s some Asian lady teaching Emily Dickinson?”


But we have a real opening here.

You’re going up for tenure.

I… I’m chair of this department.

The dean has my back, so let’s just get your case through, and then let’s fucking shake this place up.

[uplifting music playing]

[indistinct chatter]

[breathing heavily]



[student] The male adventure narrative?

Sure. Anybody else?

When we talk about the American Renaissance, what…


We’re playing catch up here since our lectures merged.

Uh, you wanna help hand these out?

Um, sure.

That’s Professor McKay, by the way, who has graciously agreed to join our class.

[students murmuring]

[“Uncontrollable Urge” by Devo playing]



Oh… [grunts]

[brakes screeching]


Professor Dobson?

Are you okay?


[Joan] “Love is blind.”

Who popularized the phrase?

You can all probably guess.


Otherwise known as the father of modern English.

You’ll be astonished how many images and idioms from our everyday speech come to us directly from the 14th century.

[breathes deeply]

You don’t have to have an answer.

I… I’m more interested in your questions than your answers.

It’s… It’s not about having a fixed analysis.

[students murmuring]

When… When… When I get up in the morning, I’m excited to come to class, not because I get to teach you, but because I… I get to learn from you.

Professor Kim…


…would you be willing to sign?

We’re trying to put some pressure on the administration.

Oh, isn’t this a student petition?

Yeah, but we’re trying to get some faculty of color on board too.

Sure thing.

[girl] Is this okay?


Yeah. Uh, thanks again.

Uh, I’m actually… I’m on the wait list for, uh, Death and Modernism.

Would you mind signing? [chuckling]


[girl] Thanks.

Um, my brother told me you’re the reason to come here.

What’s your brother’s name?

Jesse Eisenstadt. Remember him?


In my family, you’re like a household god.


“I grow old, I grow old”

“I shall wear the bottoms Of my trousers rolled”


I read.

[car door closes]

[whispers] Holy shit.

[loud hip-hop music playing]

[Joan] I mean, I can’t hear myself think.

Yes, it’s… terrible.

[music continues]

Let’s go.


They’re putting me out to pasture.

I mean… what else could this be?

This is a Title IX lawsuit waiting to happen.

How do… How do you know?

Because we’re gonna march over there and report it as such.

What’s the point in having a Title IX office if we don’t use it?

I’ll make the report myself. It’ll be like it was my idea.

Our first female chair, already a troublemaker.


I’m proud of you.

[Ji-Yoon] Oh, don’t thank me yet.

I didn’t.

[Ji-Yoon] Oh.

Hey, uh… when’s the last time you checked out your student evals?


Will you?

I don’t cater to… to consumer demands.

I’m not trying to be popular.

Well, then you’re wildly succeeding.

[Joan] Oh. [scoffs]

[Ji-Yoon] Our department is hemorrhaging enrollments.

We have to retain students, or…

Or? Or what?

Larson just painted a very ominous picture.

More ominous than usual?


Are you asking everyone?


I mean, it’ll take some coercion in Bill’s case, but yes.

[scoffs] He worships you.


[Joan] What?

No, it’s just…

[inhales deeply]

It’s still weird between us.

Of course it is, you moron.

Sharon died… so now there’s no guardrail.

Sorry I’m late.

[door closes]

Give me one second.

[woman] Hi.

[Bill] Okay.

Where’s my dongle?

Your dongle’s in your hand.

How’d that happen?

I put it there.

All right.

We are going to start with a few images I’ve assembled, if I can get this thing to cooperate.

Pembroke English teacher electrocutes himself while…

[students laugh]

[Bill on screen] Are you okay?


I can’t tell whether I have to take a shit or whether she’s coming.

[Bill] I think I might be cumming.

[Sharon] Don’t make me laugh.

[Sharon and Bill laughing]

[Sharon speaking indistinctly]

[Bill] No, I’m a good businessman. We’ll run a little side…

Professor Dobson?

Oh fuck.

[students murmuring]

[Bill exhales]

Sorry about that. [chuckles]

Wow, okay. Um, this is Lila.

She is writing a brilliant dissertation.

[softly] Which I will finish reading soon.

Um, welcome to Contemporary Lit.

Death and Modernism.

[students murmuring]

Welcome to Death and Modernism.

I usually have them tweet their favorite line from Moby-Dick.


Last semester “Call me Ishmael” tied with “From hell’s heart I stab at thee.”

No, no, no, I want them to become absorbed in the story, in the beauty of the phrasing. I mean, if all they’re doing is looking for the flashiest soundbite, I…

It’s just an exercise, so…

It’s low-hanging fruit.

It’s a way of connecting with them.

And I find that it mobilizes the skills of close reading.


[laptop keys clacking]

You’re the Melville scholar, so… [chuckles]


[door opens]

What happened to your chair?

How did you get in here?

Couldn’t bear the weight of a little Korean lady?

How did you get in?

[keys jangling]

Give me those keys. Give them to me.

There, you can have them.

Oh, my… Stop it.

Give me the keys. You’re not the chair anymore.


[grunting] Get off!

They’re right here.


Oh my God!

[both laugh]

[Ji-Yoon] Come here.

[Bill laughs]

You… I totally have them! Yes! Yes!

Oh shit!

[Ji-Yoon] I can feel them!

Oh my God!



Oh. No, we’re just…



[sighs] You’re making me look unprofessional.

[groans, sniffles]

[clears throat] I’m sorry I missed your first meeting.

Well, I defended you against the hordes of actual attendees.

How’d it go?

How did… [sighs]

No, really, how was it?

Uh, she read me the riot act.

She wants me to pull my socks up, ’cause I’m on my own now.

That’s not true, I’m here.

I mean… I mean, we’re all here. I di… I didn’t… I didn’t… I di…


Uh, you know, I’m gonna give Yaz the Distinguished Lectureship.

He said yes?

Well… Well, not exactly.

He gave me a list of the three faculty members who are paid the highest and have the lowest enrollments.

Joan, Rentz, McHale.


I mean, he wants me to talk them into retirement?

I hope you told him to fuck off.

I serve at the pleasure of the dean.

[Bill scoffs] He wishes.

You know, it’s your job as chair to advocate…

Well, in five years, do you think we’ll exist?

The English Department? I feel like I arrived at the party after… after last call.

It’s also your job as chair to boost…

Punch you in the fucking face?

[chuckles] My face is my fortune, baby.

That’s why I’m totally broke. [laughs]

Oh, that’s why you’re flat broke.


I gotta… I gotta get some work done.


Oh, and also, no more rides from female students.

My car’s impounded. I’m getting it back this afternoon.

What are you, a spy?

What are you, a moron?

Some flunky from the Dean of Students emailed me.

You know that was Dafna Eisenstadt?

Eisenstadt, like Board of Trustees Eisenstadt.

[smacking lips] Oh.

Yeah. I need everyone on their best behavior.

It’s important for the health of the department.


“Important for the health of the department?”

I don’t know why I just… Get out.

[Bill] What?

I feel it now.

Get out.

[car door closes]

[dog barking]

[keys jangling]

[door unlocks]


Hi, Appa.

[man] Hi.

Hi, sweetheart.

[grunts] Did she finish all her homework?

[in Korean] Yes, she has.

[in English] Good.

[sighs] Appa…

I told you to take this down.

[in Korean] I’ll put it away.

I need to talk to you.

[in English] Well, are you still sending him frozen steaks to Michigan?

[in Korean] So about Ju Ju… I have to tell you something.

Ju Ju’s teacher told me she needs to see a psychiatrist as soon as possible.

[in English] Shh. What?

[in Korean] She can’t understand Korean.

[in English] She’s starting to.

[in Korean] She drew this.

They said in 17 years of teaching they have never seen anything this disturbing.


[Ju Ju spits]

[Ju Ju] How old were you when your mom died?


Hey. I’m not gonna die when you’re 14.

How do you know?

Look at me!


Oh, I think I just hurt my shoulder.

[grunts, groans]


If something happened to you, who would take care of me?

Habi’s so old.

You don’t have to worry about that. Hmm?

When you die, would you still remember me?


Want me to lie with you?


[dog barking in distance]

[upbeat music playing]


[Lila] Dr. Kim?

Dr. Kim.


[Ji-Yoon] Hey.

I can’t find Bill.

What do you mean?

He’s AWOL.



Hey. Did you lose your phone? You’re late for class. Again.

And you can’t just hang out in my office.

Oh my God. Jesus, really? Are you kidding me?

Sorry. Sorry.

[Ji-Yoon] Get the other one.

Um, maybe we should just start.

I’m sure she’ll be here.

[woman] Great.

First of all, I have to let you know that we are not a designated confidential resource here on campus.

I mean, we try to maintain privacy, but if there are safety concerns in regards to…

Oh, there aren’t. I’m not being stalked.

This isn’t an unwanted overture type of thing. [sniffles]

At my age, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as an unwanted overture.

And are you yourself the complainant?


How long have you been working here at Pembroke?

Thirty-two years.

Wow. That’s a really long time.

Which department?


I wonder if I might speak with the person who’s actually going to handle my case.

Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be an investigator assigned to your case until I decide whether it rises to the level

of a Title IX policy violation.

They moved my office into some kind of subterranean shithole in the athletics building.

Other instructors of my rank, all of whom are men, were not moved.

What’s your relationship like with your chair?

Have you mentioned this to him?



Her. [laughs]

Maybe I should write myself up.

Uh, she was supposed to be here.

This… This was her idea.

I don’t know what happened.

Ah, so she’s aware that you feel that your new office is a shithole?

You don’t think I’m telling the truth?

Truth is a very loaded word.

[Joan] Is it though?

If something’s true, there’s no moral weight applied to it.

It’s a mere statement of fact.

For example, it would be true for me to say everyone can see your fanny.


Your butt is sticking out of your shorts.

When I walked in.

You are the first point of contact for people who are coming in here, some of whom need to report having been violated.

Uh, and you… you… I understand you want to be body-positive.

But maybe the place to do that isn’t a Title IX intake office.

Professor Hambling, one of the great things about Title IX is that it protects women regardless of how they dress.

You’re not a lawyer, are you?

How did you get this job?

I came from a non-profit where I helped place refugee immigrant children into foster families.

Well, I hope they didn’t have to look at your fucking fanny while you did that.

Lila mentioned there’s still some holes in your syllabus.

It has “TBD” for the next eight weeks.


The kids are asking her what they’re, you know, actually gonna study.

They’re gonna study death and something.



Nah, it’s not that.


I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just gonna say it.

Get your shit together.

That’s exactly what Doodles said.

It’s funny, the two of you are like…

There’s nothing funny about it, Bill.

Pay attention to your courses.

The only reason you enroll high is because of your reputation.

What does that mean?

You need to start showing up.

Wow. Okay. Really?

When I was chair, I didn’t ride your ass like this.

When you were chair, I wasn’t fucking phoning it in.

How many of you did the reading for today?

I mean honestly.

Okay. All right. Okay.

How many of you are drunk right now?

[students laugh]

Or stoned?

See? That’s fine.

[writing on chalkboard]

Life isn’t what you think.

It’ll never be what you think.

[writing on chalkboard]

All meaning is ascribed to the state.

There is no meaning.

The idea that we exist in a purposeless universe came about after two World Wars, 85 million dead including the camps.

What do Camus and Beckett have in common?

[phone chimes]

[student] They both fought in the resistance.


For two people who were convinced that there’s no cure for being on this Earth, that there’s nothing to be done… they still tried.

Cesare Pavese wrote that the only way to escape from the abyss is to look at it, measure it, sound its depths, and go down into it…

♪ He thought he was the King of America ♪

♪ Where they pour Coca Cola Just like vintage wine ♪

♪ Now I try hard Not to become hysterical ♪

♪ But I’m not sure If I am laughing or crying ♪

♪ I wish that I could push a button ♪

♪ And talk in the past And not the present tense ♪

♪ And watch This hurtin’ feeling disappear ♪

♪ Like it was common sense ♪

♪ It was a fine idea at the time ♪

♪ Now it’s a brilliant mistake ♪

♪ She said that she was working For the ABC News ♪

♪ It was as much of the alphabet As she knew how to use ♪

♪ Her perfume was unspeakable It lingered in the air ♪

♪ Like her artificial laughter Her mementos of affairs ♪

♪ “Oh,” I said, “I see you know him” ♪

♪ “Isn’t that very fortunate for you” ♪

♪ And she showed me his calling card ♪

♪ He came third or fourth… ♪


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