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In Netflix’s latest, a Nazi salute sets off the season’s best comedy

Netflix’s best new comedy ends its first episode with a Nazi salute.

In the fictional lower-tier Ivy, Pembroke University, a popular professor, Bill Dobson, strides into his packed classroom. He writes “Absurdism” on the board and, right above it, that artistic movement’s partial impetus, “Fascism.” His students seem engaged and he continues with the lecture. But before pivoting to the mental distress of the Holocaust and World War II for writers like Beckett, he lets slip a “Heil Hitler,” complete with the offending arm extension. This momentary carelessness creates a nightmare for his best friend, the new chair of the English department, Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman and woman of color to hold the position.

Sadly it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how this heiling situation would play out in real life. In January a professor at Penn retired under pressure after raising his arm and saying “sieg heil to you” during a Zoom event.

Bill’s salute is different from this and other instances. It actually feels germane to his lecture, and doesn’t appear to elicit any response from the school’s Hillel, Jewish students or various Antisemitism watchdog groups for whom these sort of theatrics at the academy are red meat. But then, that wouldn’t be very funny — except maybe to some professional Jews like myself.

“The Chair,” created by actress and screenwriter Amanda Peet and Harvard scholar Annie Wyman, is not about Jews. Its English faculty doesn’t appear to have any Jewish professors — quite the rare thing for a school in Northeast (the show was filmed in Pennsylvania, notably at Chatham College in Squirrel Hill). There is no noticeable Jewish student life organizing protests, though a diverse group of students challenge Bill’s privilege when he mentions Jewish intellectuals who fled the Third Reich. The one ostensibly Jewish character — apart from a cameo I won’t ruin here — is a student named Dafna Eisenstat (whose parents are apparently on the Board of Trustees). She briefly mentions militias and an uptick in instances of antisemitism to explain the poor optics of Bill’s gesture, but more to help him out than condemn him. I’m actually pretty sure this short scene is the one time the word “antisemitism” is spoken.

This is not a major failing or really any failing at all. Because while a superficially antisemitic act would yield a different response from the usual alphabet soup of Jewish groups, an accurate account of the fallout would distract from the show’s true concern. This is Ji-Yoon’s story, and Bill, as Kathryn Vanarendonk recently noted in a piece on TV’s crisis in white dudedom, is an impediment, a “Main Guy” in a post-Main Guy world, sticking to principles his female and BIPOC counterparts can’t afford to entertain.

“This isn’t about whether you’re a Nazi,” Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh) tells Bill (Jay Duplass) soon after they become aware of the growing scandal. “This is about whether you’re one of these men where when something like this happens thinks they can dust themselves off and walk away without any f—-ing sense of consequences.”

She’s right. Bill isn’t a Nazi. And if this world is strangely “post-Jewish,” it’s only because — shocker — Nazi gestures offend more than just Jews and the show has something else to tell us about equity in higher education. Ji-Yoon works to change an atrophying department eying endowments and celebrity lecturers over the diversity students are clamoring for.

The professors are the focus — not the students — and include Holland Taylor as a fed-up Chaucer instructor consigned to the basement of a gym, Bob Balaban as a preening relic teaching American Lit and David Morse as a Dean who needs to brush up his Shakespeare. They whiff of mothballs while Yaz McKay (Nana Menash), a young inventive Black professor, contends with a tenure committee.

Her story recalls that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, and so many other Black academics. The series is also in touch with Title IX compliance and how women professors are underpaid and end up taking on additional responsibilities. But on the delicacy of the student body and the policing of speech, the show seems agnostic, siding with Bill until he makes himself truly problematic with a nonapology. (You will probably still end up liking Bill, such is Duplass’ gift at playing sensitive screwups.)

Topics this weighty could sink a comedy, but somehow “The Chair” stays afloat. Not many shows could sustain themselves past a salute to the Führer. I’m glad this one did.

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