Wed. Oct 20th, 2021


Amanda Peet is working on

Many taboos are explored in the jewel of a Netflix series, The chair, with the incomparable Sandra Oh. A drama about the newly appointed chair of an English department at ‘a lower level Ivy League college’ ‘called Pembroke, contains a list of cultural points of contact, including institutional racism, sexism, age and the rise of social activism, with an indifference that would make many writers tremble. The campus is now run by Twitter, a crowd of political justice (no one would definitely prefer to be a teacher in this ‘teachable moment’) and degrading public forums called Town Halls. This is a disturbing assumption about so many fever problems. It also produces a lot of laughter.

The series was co-written and executive produced by Amanda Peet, an actress I have forever admired and who is married to David Benioff, the co-creator of Game of Thrones, which was also an executive producer. With their departmental betrayal and intrigue, the dusty halls of Pembroke do not look so different from the bloody fields of Westeros. But instead of hilarious coups and public killings, the assassinations in Pembroke are done through student feedback, gray committee members and opinion polls. Oh’s character was appointed in the twilight of an era when the mighty rewards of tenure come to an end. As head of a department that is overpaid and underfunded, she is accused of doing the necessary elimination.

Perhaps the most interesting decisions in the series, however, are not the depiction of the cultural wars, nor the conspiracies of a troubled institution, but the way Peet captures the domestic drama of the home. As a forty-one single mother of an adopted daughter, Professor Kim’s most complicated relationship is the one she shares with a daughter, a nasty six-year-old who has a pathological inability to charm. She draws portraits in which her mother is rooted, she lets babysitters sit while they sit on the living room; she manipulates her caregivers, or runs away from them, giggling. She mostly speaks in a lament.

The monstrous child has always been an awkward drama in drama. The prevailing wisdom says that bad children can only be conceived by bad parenting, and few female protagonists in film or television are tolerated when they are considered incompetent to do the things they were biologically destined to do. It probably helps that Peet, a mother of three, is in the role of exhibitors, but as a depiction of the challenges of parenting The chair a much more interesting and nuanced reading material. I liked that her parental responsibilities and concerns were not the epicenter of the story, but that it clouded every decision the professor made. It also provides an interesting inference: that a child’s love is not loving, stimulates the darkest rest of parental anxiety. Is me kid a little shit?

Such conversations have been raging in drama for some time, as the cliché of the 2.4 family unit finally begins to recede. This year, there has been a welcome increase in dramas that have embraced the phenomena of single parenting, co-parenting, disability, psychological trauma or addiction, and the popular argument that you can simply love someone is challenging to become ‘good’.

Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon in The Chair

Sandra Oh in ‘The Chair’ © Eliza Morse / Netflix

Because not all children are a ray of sunshine. We all know children who leave us cold. But charming children often appear as brilliant adults: perhaps they are just not the type to enjoy the dignity of youth.

Yet there is always a part of us that blames the parents. When children are wayward, rude, or generally unpleasant, modern thinking still insists that it must be because the parents are doing something wrong. A bare expression of this theory is now delivered by Melinda Wenner Moyer, whose new book How to raise children who are not crazy offers a column on how to raise compassionate and kind children.

Wenner Moyer, a science journalist and columnist on parenting who lives with her husband and two children in Hudson Valley, argues that traits of kindness have long been considered a weakness, as studies have actually found that “the boys who the most useful and generous in the nursery eventually earned the most money when they were 25. “They were also less likely to go to jail, she continues. Therefore, Mr. Nice Guy can also be an alpha male. education advocates also advocate for an open discussion of topics that may be uncomfortable for parents as it may cause negative ideas, while white parents, for example, feel uncomfortable discussing race with their children, suppressing the discussion will only help white privilege and instill racial prejudice.

Wenner Moyer’s philosophy is hardly groundbreaking: it’s basically based on the principles of removing unnecessary pressure and offering your children unconditional love. Still, I would be curious to meet the children of Wenner Moyer before deciding how far I should stop the current program of assholery going on at casa Ellison. Just as the children of psychologists tend to experience the worst anxiety and nerves, it’s too delicious to imagine that Wenner Moyer’s textbook will one day bite her ass.

Send ‘e-mail to Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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