IRENE YOON: Hello, welcome to “Departmental Drama” with Annie Julia Wyman and Merve Emre, moderated by Sarah Chihaya. I’m Irene Yoon, the Executive Director here at Los Angeles Review of Books, and it is my pleasure to welcome you all here for today’s conversation. I think it’s going to be a really exciting one. Many of you are already aware that we are in the middle of our 10th anniversary here at LARB — 10 years of working hard to make lively, incisive conversations like today’s chat happen online and print, on our podcasts, and in events that once upon a time were live here in Los Angeles and hopefully once again will be soon. As a reader-supported nonprofit, we really wouldn’t be here without the incredible support and contributions of so many writers, editors, thinkers, readers, TV watchers, like all of you, so thank you so much for joining us today. This fall we’re going to be celebrating our birthday with a weekly series of exciting conversations between some of our favorite writers and critics that we’re calling the Semipublic Intellectual Sessions. We invite you to keep the conversation going by joining us for those events this October. We’ll be announcing our lineup and our opening registration for the series in the next few weeks, so you can stay tuned by signing up for our newsletter, or by checking our anniversary page at lareviewofbooks.org/tenth.
Without further ado, it’s my great pleasure to introduce our moderator for today’s conversation, Sarah Chihaya. We’re so thrilled to have Sarah join us this year at LARB as a senior editor. Sarah is also an assistant professor in the English Department at Princeton University, the co-author of The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism, and co-editor of “How to be now,” a special issue of post45. You can find Sarah’s writing in PMLA, Modern Fiction Studies, Contemporary Literature, the New York Review of Books, here at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other places. It’s my pleasure to turn it over to you, Sarah, thank you so much, and thank you, Annie and Merve, for joining us today.
SARAH CHIHAYA: Great, thank you so much, Irene. Thank you, Annie and Merve for joining me, and thank you to all of you participants out there on the internet. I’m really excited to introduce you to our marvelous guests for today.
Annie Julia Wyman lived the adjunct dream at Claremont McKenna after receiving her PhD in English from Harvard in 2017. In addition to co-creating The Chair, she has staffed on prestige shows at Amazon and HBO Max. She has created for the executive producers of The Handmaid’s Tale, Mrs. America, Dickinson, Game of Thrones, Fargo, Seinfeld, and others. In addition to writing for Jay Duplass and Sandra Oh, as we have all seen in The Chair, Annie’s other accomplishments in Los Angeles include practicing hot yoga proximate to Elijah Wood, who she says is very flexible.
Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, Worcester College, and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is the author and editor of several books including The Personality Brokers, which was adapted for HBO Max as the 2021 Documentary Feature Film Persona. However, her Hollywood connections to date are far less extensive than Annie’s. While she was the executive producer of Persona, she knows next to nothing about how “the moving pictures” are made. This year she is serving as one of the judges of the International Booker Prize, primarily because she was tricked into believing that Colin Firth would be one of her co-judges. Merve edited and Annie wrote one of the essays most meaningful to me for LARB — you can read it on our website. It is a long reading of the exquisite film Swiss Army Man. I hope you go and check it out.
Also, if you notice that there’s a particularly intimate tone, which I hope there will be to today’s conversation, it’s because Annie and Merve are former roommates, and, from what I can tell, their biggest continuing argument from that period is about whether or not noted international arbiter of taste Merve Emre has ever owned and worn a fleece. We’ll talk for about an hour, the three of us, and then we’ll open it up to Q&A for the last 15 to 20 minutes of our time together. So please make sure you enter your questions in the Q&A space. I’ll turn it over to Merve to get us started.
MERVE EMRE: Thank you, Sarah. Annie, congratulations. I think that one of the nicest aspects of what we do is having the opportunity to feel proud of the things that our friends make, and I felt very proud of you, watching The Chair, so congratulations, it’s wonderful. I watched it with my husband and when we finished, he turned to me and said, “How did Annie, do this?” And I said, “Well, you know, she got her PhD and she moved to LA.” And he pointed out that that didn’t actually answer his question. So, how did a girl, armed with only a PhD in comedy from Harvard, and maybe a song in her heart, end up co-creating what was last week the number one most watched show on Netflix worldwide?
ANNIE JULIA WYMAN: That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve asked myself that question. And before I answer, I just want to say thank you for having me. LARB has a very special role to play in literary culture, especially here in LA. You guys have let me write things nobody else would even think about letting me write and that have ended up being very important to me. I hope that the campaign goes amazingly well. And the other thing I will say is that it wasn’t just a fleece jacket, it was white fleece, which made it all the more offensive. I remember very clearly.
How did I get from Cambridge to Hollywood is the question. I was, like I assume many people here for this event are, a really discouraged and unhappy graduate student. I had hoped that my life would be splendid and that it would involve wood-paneled rooms and plush upholstery and this kind of thing. And it did, while I was a graduate student. It was like this false promise which can make a person pretty discontented when they’re living inside it. I was struggling with the usual precarity — I was living in a rundown four-bedroom duplex in Somerville with three really wonderful women and also asking myself what the hell I was going to do. I had no idea, and very luckily, someone else provided me with one.
I have a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Stanford, and I think I was in my fourth year of graduate school when I got a Facebook message from a friend from undergrad who was like, you know, next time you’re in New York, let’s have dinner. I am a genuinely awkward person, and I didn’t know how to really respond to what felt like being asked out in a pretty dorky way. But I said yeah. We went to the fanciest restaurant I’ve ever been in in my life. Like, floor to ceiling antique copper cooking vessel vessels and a wild game theme. So, there in the back, in a velvet booth, was this friend who had become a movie producer. He asked me all these questions about my life and my interests, and I flailed around the way that you can see I flail around. And then he said well why don’t you write a movie. And I said, no. Because this is a scam, clearly.
So we had our awkward meal, and then I went home and I spent a significant amount of money — what was a very significant amount of money for me at that time — on a copy of screenwriting software. That was the beginning. I audited screenwriting classes at Harvard, and I was very lucky that they were willing to do that, to have this adult weirdo in the back of the room with all these undergrads writing their coming-of-age stories. But that’s how I began in TV. I wrote my first television pilot and sent it to my friend who I had not told I was going to try and take up on his offer, and he optioned it the next week, which was the same week that I submitted my dissertation. So, I moved to LA instead of going on to the job market. I was lucky enough to be able to adjunct a little bit before I got my first job, and that first job was The Chair. I can say more about how that specific project came to be.
ME: So you’re saying it wasn’t a date.
AJW: If it was I failed at it.
ME: I want to get to the question of how The Chair specifically came to be, but first I just have a slightly more general question. As someone who studied theories of comedy, did you find that reading, say, Freud on jokes and their relation to the unconscious or reading Bergson or whomever was helpful for you in actually writing comedy?
AJW: Yes, I did. People are often surprised by that answer because we tend to hold analyzing and creating so far apart from each other, but everything that I’ve learned about comedy, or about theories of comedy, some of which are very dorky and sort of like lovably like what — like Kant, who says laughing is good for your digestion because it swings your stomach around — but even that kind of thing makes me fall much more deeply in love with the subject. The whole terrain of comic thought is top to bottom lovable — and it helps us love each other. That’s the upshot of a lot of those theories finally. I know that’s a very humanistic spin to put on it, but stuff like Bergson where it’s like, whoa, we’re all this sort of moving flow, and then we get a little crust on us and that keeps us from being most ourselves, so we laugh at ourselves, which helps us shed off our crust? That’s just fucking fun — sorry that’s my first swear of the call, I’ll try and keep it to a minimum. But, yeah, I like comedy the more I learn about how comedy works, and the more I like it, the more I want to write it, and it’s a nice, cyclical sort of a thing.
SC: Can I interrupt with another slightly more specific genre question? And then I do want to get to how The Chair happened. As I was watching it, I was thinking about campus fiction — selfishly, because I have taught a class on campus fiction and have been thinking about a lot. In the academy, we’re very used to privileging campus fiction as this very specialized and specific genre. I’m curious about how The Chair functions, not just in the world of comedy, but also in the specific context of both campus fiction and then in the world outside of our very small, siloed campus-fiction-privileging space. How it works as a workplace comedy or in terms of other kinds of shows that focus on professions, like police procedurals or lawyer shows. What other genres did you think about when you were creating it?
AJW: That’s a great question, and there’s a lot of potential avenues opened up by it. I will say first that genre within the industry is primarily a commercial way of thinking and talking. If you go into pitch at Netflix, the way we did with The Chair, and you say, you know, this is campus fiction or whatever, it belongs to a very successful family of stories about academia. They would be like, what? And instead, and this is what happened in our pitch, it’s like: this is a workplace comedy. Everybody has a job. Everybody has a boss who generates absurdity and conflict. It’s good comedy and good drama. And you kind of see the exec go, oh right, yeah, I, too, have a job. I understand workplace comedy — just the way you want the audience to.
As to the other parts of your question: Procedural shows are, yes, very much about professions of various kinds. That’s classic TV. It’s episodic, and the profession functions to produce the new story every episode. So, you’re a lawyer and then you solve a case every week, you’re a cop and you fight crime every week, whatever. There’s that kind of show about professions, and then there’s the kind of serial show about characters who have interesting lives because they have interesting jobs. A lot of prestige TV is like that, like Mad Men, like The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie. I think The Chair is, is sort of closer in tone to that second category with hopefully the kind of speediness of the first category, since it’s a half hour.
ME: I was thinking, Annie, about how if you’re on the reception side of a cultural product, the memorable events leading up to its release are probably very different than the events on the production side. When I think about how the show was recieved, I think, okay, the announcement was made that the show had been greenlit, and Twitter exploded, and then the trailer came out, and Twitter exploded, and then the episodes started streaming and people had a lot of commentary. What does it look like on the production side? If you were to walk us through it, from that pitch meeting onward, how would you tell the story of the making of the show?
AJW: It’s good to be specific about the making of one show because all shows are made differently. The process is wildly variable, I think, which is something to keep in mind when writing about television, frankly. I teamed up with Amanda. She had a nascent concept — she always wanted to do something with professors. She is a comic performer and wanted there to be something of comedy in it, so we started with that much. And then we did something that a lot of creators do, which was to wrote a whole pilot. Then we sent it into Netflix under Dan and David’s overall deal. Right there an enormous amount of variation in the production process can arise. Working with producers who have been given a lot of money to create content for one of the streamers is a very lucky position to be in, and many shows come about differently. We went in under the auspices of this development deal. We had a pitch which was a sort of gentle warm, wonderful conversation with some important people.
And then, based on the pilot and the pitch, we got money for further development, which is not a green light. Some shows get a green light for shooting a pilot based a script that’s been written on spec, some for writing and shooting a whole season. Some — actually more and more now — get a huge outlay of cash and the promise of development and shooting for multiple seasons at once. But we got a more ordinary thing: please revise this script, give it back to us, we’ll think about it, we’ll keep talking about it. Then once I had revised it we went ahead.
ME: I don’t know if you can answer this question, but how was the pilot different from the first episode that we saw?
AJW: I think it was better, but the same, but better, but also mostly the same, if you know what I mean. You go through a certain amount of negotiation with your new creative partners so that they have or feel they have a real stake in what’s developing. In that case, it literally was me going home and rewriting a couple of scenes, pulling one of the only all-nighters I’ve pulled since graduate school, and then sending it back to them and being like, look, it’s funnier now — without having any clue if it was. And then Netflix opened up three little writers’ rooms in a row. First you write an outline of the overall season. And then you assign outlines for each episode to specific writers and they turn in those drafts. And then you know, eventually you have six scripts, which then become shooting scripts. Then they take them to Pittsburgh, in this case, in January, in the middle of a pandemic. They shoot the thing while taking on board the changes that occur there on set live, especially with gifted performers, and then it gets edited in post, and then it’s in the can. You know, so then months later, if you’re me, it’s like, crap, I guess August 20 is approaching. Am I going to go hide on a mountaintop? I guess not, because I have other stuff to do. And then your notifications blow up.
SC: Maybe we can talk a little bit about that response, the notifications. What happens after the show comes out, and you’re not on your mountaintop? One of the questions that I had, that I think a lot of our friends in the profession have, is what you were thinking about the implied audience. How do you balance the idea that you, having come from inside this world, know presumably exactly what a lot of your peers and friends and colleagues will think about it — at once you’re trying to get to the heart of a certain kind of academic experience, on the one hand trying to get very specific, but on the other looking from the outside as a normal viewer of television, who’s not sort of like looking for specifics? How did you think about that going in and now having seen some of the responses coming out? Could you just tell us a little bit about your thinking through that kind of two-sided audience question?
AJW: Yeah, I was lucky and unlucky enough to be adjuncting during some of the development process. I was careful to talk to my undergraduate students and ask if they thought what I was working on might be interesting. You say, it’s however many crazy professors unraveling. Would you watch old people fall apart? It felt important to ask them because they felt like a hard get. Finally you know you’re not going to get every person, no matter their background, to watch or enjoy anything you do. That’s just an unreasonable standard. But I’m really just always trying to — and maybe this is a really dorky habit I learned in grad school — to check in with as many people as I could and explain and get their feedback, sort of measure their reactions. Like, would you want to see a stuffy professor fly off a Bird scooter? And they’d be like, are you going to fly off a Bird scooter? Why are you asking us this?
But you’re always trying to do temperature checks in that way. Writers out here are always pitching each other shit. It’s an important skill and also a running joke. Also, of course, I felt terrified about addressing people who live in a very specific world, even if you’re of that world. We did have that kerfuffle about the offices of The Chair looking way too nice — people getting really miffed on the Internet and saying my office doesn’t look like that! or whatever. I was talking to my lawyer on the day those promo photos came out and I sort of freaked out and said: I think my own people hate it! They feel like we falsified their experience! And he’s like, Annie, are you reading the comments? I felt like an idiot. There’s a little bit of me learning to navigate still, and learning for myself what boundaries I need and what I think is a reasonable response to a show given what I know now about how shows are made. But still and all I do want to talk about the comments, and I did read them.
ME: I’ll ask a related question about audience which is, in a previous conversation that we had Annie, you said something that’s really stuck with me, in part because you said it so directly and matter-of-factly. You said that no TV show or film is about the thing that it’s putatively about. All TV shows and films are about Hollywood. To be a little technical about it, all TV shows demand a kind of symptomatic reading that some of us, as academics, were trained to produce, but you almost never hear people on the creative side owning that. I was very struck by it and very interested in it, and I was hoping that you could maybe explain how The Chair shows us, or reveals in glimpses and slips and hints, that it is, in fact, about Hollywood and not about academia.
AJW: Yeah, sure. There are little examples everywhere. I think it’s in episode two where Bill is being asked to sign a statement that’s been written for him, an apology or something like this. But he quips, you know, oh, I don’t co-write, which is a term of Hollywood, right. And The Chair is totally co-written back to front.
I also think Amanda is really wonderfully open about this question of aging out of relevance that’s at the center of the show. That effects every kind of talent in Hollywood way more than it does academics. The amount of money that an actor can pull starring in anything just goes off a cliff, if you’re a woman and you happen to turn 40, 45, 50. So that’s something I think she wanted to think through. It’s not specific to Hollywood, but its centrality in The Chair is part of the Hollywoodishness of the show, if you want to call it that.
Then, too, and I do believe this about my new industry, there’s a heartfelt belief in story and a real interest in the right stories being told passionately out here. That is shared between English departments and Hollywood. The way the characters on The Chair talk about literature and teaching is how the best TV people talk about what we write and what we want to do for our audiences — we’re using some of that stuff in the show to talk about how intensely we feel about the culture we’re making. It feels sort of sappy but one of the reasons I feel comfortable where I am now in LA is because I’ve found that to be true. There’s that same level of passionate care. A lot else is true about power in this industry as in academia, and some of that turns up in the show as well. But for me it’s somehow not a criticism to say that most film and TV is about the conditions of its production. I used to love to watch Simpsons episodes to just verify that theory. It usually works.
ME: No, I don’t take it to be a criticism at all but a kind of proper contextualization of how the show needs to be read. But it does lead to another question that I had, which is, you know you and I met in part because we lived together, but also because we worked together on a number of pieces about film. And I do urge everybody to read those pieces because I think they’re wonderful — not just Swiss Army Man, but The Tribe. And I’m wondering how, having worked on the creative side, you now see things about either the formal or the social or the political makings of film and television that you wouldn’t have picked up on as a critic, and if there are things you would want critics of television to know. A harsher way to put it might just be, are there mistakes you see critics making when they write about television that you might have made yourself but now you have a better or a deeper kind of knowledge?
AJW: Maybe not better, but definitely firsthand and there’s actually I think a couple of quick fixes for — mistakes is maybe too harsh or word — but just, you know, stuff that I —
ME: I was trying to be polemical, sorry.
AJW: No, you’re a very incisive person and I’m a wet noodle, so I’m just wet noodling over here about what you said. The assumption of intentionality is so tricky. I just almost want to be like, don’t do it. I mean if you’re a clever critic, you can find another framework, unless you’re up against some sort of house style rules. And of course saying something about performances is different, but saying Showrunner X fucked up by including this item in a shot — I wouldn’t do that kind of ungenerous blaming unless whatever error was really, really, really glaring. Things can mean without an author, and things happen in television all the time that are beyond any one person’s control. Authorship is so wildly distributed even in the showrunner system, and there are so many different reasons that something might be incongruous to your eye that have nothing to do with a thoughtful choice by the one person you’re choosing to get very mad at. Every time I read something like that, I think, you know, don’t assign intentional meaning to things that were very likely contingent, and if you’re going to, try and find a way to ask and then verify — or just leave that way of talking behind and give all the agency to the show itself in that nice way that we just can. Yeah, I would like to be concrete about complaints about The Chair, but I just rewatched the last episode and was like: this is really fucking good. I don’t even really remember anything nitpicky and specific that I would want to quarrel with.
ME: You don’t have to criticize your own show. It’s totally fine to not do that. We could just ask the internet to do that if you really want to.
SC: Now that you have been both a critic and a creator of televisual things, do you miss criticism? Do you want to go back to it, by which I mean, would you like to write a piece for me for LARB?
AJW: Like my White Lotus take? I think one of the things that I’ve missed most about academia is the lively extemporaneous criticism of anything that comes into mutual view. I miss going home and talking to Merve or to our other former roommates who I think are here on the Zoom, which makes me want to cry for happiness — hi guys. Anyway, I miss having those conversations so much. Like, let’s take this apart together. I will say I have gotten better at using that vocabulary with other creators, so that I feel like I’m bringing something to the conversation that doesn’t feel too technical or too thinky. So often I find myself playing my I-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next-because-of-the-rules-of-narrative game with other people, which is a lot of fun.
Here’s a little story that seems relevant. I was carrying an N+1 tote bag one afternoon, and David Benioff stopped me. He was like, do you read N+1. I said I read N+1. I love them. Do you read them? And he crossed his arms, and he said I don’t do anything literary anymore. He was joking, but there’s maybe that risk of becoming the person who is like I’m just Hollywood now, and I have obviously unprocessed feelings about that. I worry that that will happen to me. But I don’t want it to, so please give me the chance to write something for you.
ME: David Duchovny seems like he’s kind of like that, right?
AJW: David Duchovny the character, sure, though I think not the man. The person who says, I’m such a genius I think maybe I’ll just take my undergrad pieces and… Yeah, there are more people like that in Hollywood than you would think. Or maybe you would think that there were a lot of people like that, and there are.
SC: I was very, very interested in the Asian American content of the show. I feel like I would be remiss as an Asian American not saying I’m very interested in it. But not only in the kind of family dynamics, which I thought really felt very true to the experience in some ways of the children of immigrants. The dad’s speaking Korea and Sandra Oh’s character responding in English, things like that. The question of whether or not Ji-Yoon understands Korean. I’m interested in how that sort of family dynamic became part of the show and wasn’t there from the beginning, but also on the professional side, why specifically did you or did you and Amanda wants the protagonist, not only to be, as I think Bob Balaban’s character says, the department’s First Lady Chair, but the department’s First Lady of Color Chair.
AJW: You know, there’s a little bit of like a chicken-and-egg aspect to that question because we wanted Sandra Oh specifically and the part was written for her. And at the same time, did we want to give a platform to a woman of color? Yes. There’s this category that you’re thinking of but only after you’re thinking about how exquisite Sandra Oh is and knowing that she’s coming off of Killing Eve and thinking if we can get her we’re going to flipping get her, you know? I think we also needed to be really willing to give over to her some control of the storytelling. I remember when she came in after first having read a draft of the pilot to sit down with me and Amanda and Dan and David and Jay. She asked for a cup of hot water. And there was just one second of the white people being like why does she want hot water by itself? She was like, it’s a Korean thing. Don’t ask me about my Korean thing, just bring me my hot water. In some ways any good show is just making way for that specificity because that’s what it needed. Again this is almost like, I don’t want to call it a secondary consideration, but it’s a kind of attendant thing right, that it’s also sort of what the larger cultural conversation needs: this person, with all that her identity entails, being herself. I just want to give her all the credit for that.
SC: I think that exactly what you’re describing, the way in which it seems to come in so naturally, was what I really liked about it compared to many other many other shows with Asian American characters, from All-American Girl to present, in my lifetime. There’s something so unremarked upon about the family, the structure of the family, the kind of rhythm of the family, that I thought was really lovely in a lot of the episodes. So, that’s one of the things that I wanted to congratulate you on, the incorporation of it without making it a thing. I thought really added nuance to her character and to the show as a whole.
AJW: Thank you, that really means a lot because I honestly don’t know anybody who has a normal family. I’m really glad that we were able to show that basically any kind of family is normal. I get so sick of hearing myself say these little truisms, but I appreciate that you enjoyed that part of the show.
ME: And it was probably inevitable that academics were going to have strong feelings about the show, whether to fault it for its mimetic failures or to claim that it was too real to bother watching, because why would you want to watch it when you can just go to a department meeting? And I know that you’ve been reading some of the comments, and I have my own strong feelings about some of the comments, but I am curious if there are any that you would particularly want to address yourself. Before I fight your fight for you.
AJW: I guess I do relish the opportunity to say that it’s not fact. It’s a work of fiction. I know people are expressing something very specific when they say, I don’t want to watch a show about my work because my work is stressful enough. They’re not necessarily really confusing television with reality, but there have been a couple of moments where it’s like, okay, you know, you are a bit confused. It’s a TV show. It’s entertainment, and that even costs me something to say because I don’t want to ask for my own work not to be taken seriously or something. But Eric Auerbach does have some things to say on this subject.
ME: Well that’s, you know, obviously catnip for me, but I guess a different way to frame that question might be to go back to where our conversation started, which was about genre. Within genre understood primarily as a kind of commercial category in the industry, there are certain constraints on what you can and cannot represent. And maybe a different way to ask the question is what did you feel were the strongest constraints on what you could and couldn’t depict? And if you can’t answer that question, I will find a third way to ask that question.
AJW: Yeah, strongest constraints are always going to be budget and time, and sometimes those are the same thing and sometimes they’re not. We had a lot of time on this one, and not as much budget as Game of Thrones, say. And then also a kind of third bizarre constraint, which was the pandemic. It’s snowing at the beginning of the school year because it was snowing when the show could be shot. Time, money, physical reality are always going to be in effect on any television production. So that’s one way to answer the question. Are there things that I wish we had done that we didn’t do? Yeah, absolutely. You know that’s another thing maybe to keep in mind when writing about or thinking about TV. Maybe it’s because people think that there’s just a huge amount of money and a huge amount of opportunity in TV right now because of streamers, because of the success of these platforms, but there’s just not. It’s a really high stakes business that is happening, and nobody’s going to say, even to the most successful television showrunners of all time, you can do whatever you want, you can have all the money you want.
ME: I want you to help me understand one of my own affective responses to the show. The moments watching it that I felt most uncomfortable were actually when I thought there was a perfectly mimetic overlay, when the details felt too right or knowing. The reference to PMLA, for instance, made me want to just curl under my table and die. Or that moment when Sandra Oh’s character is sitting with David Duchovny and she’s saying, you’ve been out of the game for the last years, now there’s affect theory, digital humanities, and I felt my skin just crawling. Can you help me understand this? What is your theory of why I felt that way?
AJW: I think it’s cringe. I feel like the Sianne Ngai category would be cringe. Some things felt like a little letter to my former self. Like, we had a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor of Elliot Rentz playing the song “Hot in Herre” to try and lure students into an empty classroom. And that’s not what you’re exactly talking about, the inventory of the profession or something like this, but like, oh my god, no. Amanda wrote that one, but it felt drawn from life in a way that was like, Oh, I wish it were not so…
ME: So, where the cringe is the kind of overly familiar, right?
AJW: Yeah, I don’t want to see that in myself, or it’s almost like looking at a bad photo of yourself from your awkward years.
ME: When you’re wearing a white fleece.
AJW: I liked the white fleece. I was intimidated.
SC: I had one last question that relates to the question that Merve just asked, a return to the genre question that relates to one of the questions that one of our viewers asks, which has to do with the specific kind of university or institution that’s shown in Pembroke University. Specifically, the question relates to adjuncts, and how you said that you were an adjunct when you started writing the show, so it was obviously the life that you were living. But the fact that the university in which this show takes place does not appear to have adjuncts — a very specific kind of East Coast Ivy League institution that if they exist, they’re not seen in the show. There’s that question from the human eye, but the thing I want to add on to that is, as you’re navigating the creation of this imaginary campus for all kinds of viewers, how do you also navigate constraints in terms of what you the writer imagines the viewer understands or thinks about college or the idea of college as a setting? That’s a big question you can answer any part of them, that whole set of things.
AJW: So, as a screenwriter we have two related skills or tasks: exposition and world building. You do learn how to put across a sort of different reality. How are we “setting the table”? Is the sort of visual world of the show enough? Can we try and judge how much the viewer will understand just by seeing a big, beautiful campus? In this case, probably a lot. In terms of the workings of committees, power structures, there’s a lot of what’s called “setting the table.” In the pilot especially, “Our First Lady Chair!” — that’s good dialogue, it’s a funny joke, but it’s also just straight up exposition. Having to do that more or less, then judging that correctly as you move through the whole show, but especially laying it out in the pilot — that’s a writerly task. And it’s something that producers and executives help writers adjust along the way to the finished project. I hope that we got that part of it right, and I hope that that sort of nuts-and-bolts explanation is helpful.
The adjunct profession is a big question. I mean, Yaz’s character was originally written as an adjunct. That was how we conceived of the show, but you don’t always get what you want. Maybe one of the ideas was that we should give Yaz’s character more stability and a chance at significant success, that an embattled adjunct wasn’t necessarily the right direction for that character. I am fully aware, and, in some ways I’m happy, that the show isn’t more about class, more about precarity. As I say, I just rewatched — it’s a little pat, but the ending with Lila where she gets her chance — when her manuscript shows up on her doorstep — that was like: oh fuck yes. She has some chance. And at least we have some representation of the downstairs part of it. We have the fancy senior faculty who have their own problems and then we have a couple of different rungs below them, shall we say, in terms of power and professional possibility.
ME: Can I say something very quickly here on this point? I was talking with my friend Ben about this, and something that he observed that I think is astute is that you would need to have an entirely different show to deal with the adjunct problem properly. You’d have to have a Downton Abbey version of the show, you’d have to have that proper upstairs downstairs setup to it. You couldn’t just kind of plug an adjunct in or have one walk on; it would only duplicate the economic logic of contingent labor. But the second thing I’ll say, which is maybe a little bit more combative, is that I do not see the people I know who are actually involved with organizing on campuses carping about the lack of adjuncts on the show, because I think those people understand better than anyone that there is a huge difference between the kind of work that results in actually changing the labor conditions in an institution, and the kind of symbolic or aesthetic work that a television show can do. And so, for me at least, that criticism now feels quite lazy and, coming from people who I know have not lifted a finger over the past five years on behalf of contingent labor, also feels quite sanctimonious.
AJW: I am thrilled by that combativeness, and I’m frankly, in a good deal of agreement with it.
ME: I'm just going to add to that one other thing, which is that if you are clever enough symptomatic reader, one thing that you might want to think about are Hollywood's own exploitative labor practices, and that there's every incentive for an industry that relies on contingent and temporary labor not to represent it.
AJW: That’s exactly a much more articulate way of saying what I was going to say, which is that, as one might expect it’s a little harder to get those kinds of stories told or to get what we call buy-in from producers and so forth and so on. Some of the justification for that is reasonable, like, we want to offer people something that is an escape from those sorts of things and some of it is more to do with the labor conditions. And what we — I think I have to say “we” now — don’t want to draw attention to.
SC: I’m going to ask a question from the Q&A directly from Hannah, who is asking a question to do with the discourse on Twitter. She asks, “There was some discourse on Twitter the past couple of weeks about vibes as an aesthetic category” — I imagine this is referring to Brandon Taylor’s essay — “But is it enough for the acting to be convincing, beautiful wardrobe, drama to invest in, and so on? How would you or how did you imagine cultural criticism to be, with regards to The Chair, as you were writing it?” This kind of goes back to the question, do you want to go back and write criticism again? Did you imagine, or did you have desires for or questions about, how people, critics, and other writers would respond to The Chair?
AJW: Oh, there’s a lot there. I mean, this is the first time that I’ve made anything that’s gone out into the world in this way and reached so many people. I don’t know how to think about it fully. I have been super moved and more than moved by positive responses from especially former colleagues and friends. I’ve told myself that that should be enough. I’m terrified of reading the Brandon Taylor essay, and I’m, like, well maybe I’ll just be happy and grateful. Get to it at a later point. All that said, there is a part of you that’s, like, I really want to control how this is received. I do think there’s a right way and a wrong way to write about television. I hope to keep having more conversations about that, not least because I have all these lingering impulses, like, oh, I know a little bit more about how to do this, and we’re supposed to be all learning together, and so let me help. Let’s share. You’re smarter than me, but I have this specific insight. And so, let’s talk it out. I think there’s probably something in the idea that there’s no good and bad and only vibes anymore. Honestly, because the idea is to saturate any market or micro market to the point where there’s infinite fulfillment and no critical thinking. That’s probably true, but I feel myself sort of rambling, so maybe you can give me another question.
ME: Can I collate a bunch of questions in the chat, Sarah? Because a lot of them seem to be asking or implying the possible existence of a second season. And I’m wondering if you have anything to say about that or can say anything. If you’ve already written it? If I will be in it?
AJW: Merve, do you know this German word Geheimnis? It means secret. I wish I could say. I mean, the show was sold as a limited series, and I haven’t checked the copy on the Netflix website recently, but that’s the sort of dispensation right now, and I truly cannot say if that will remain the case forever.
SC: I would love for there to be a second series, but I think that if it remains limited series it does really, as you just said about rewatching the last episode, it comes together so well in the end. It feels kind of like a film, rather than like a TV series, about these characters. I want to go back a little bit to what you were saying in response to the last question that I asked from Hannah. This is another question from the chat from Shireen who says, “I’m an academic with lots of creative writing ambition, and like Annie said, I believe that theories around narrative, but also around how the world works, can easily enhance our writing potential for entertainment.” And she asks, “What do you think about creating some sort of collaboration between, or more collaboration between Hollywood and the university?” Or between academia and the university and Hollywood, more specifically? Between these different kinds of writers, many of us who want to speak to each other and want to learn those lessons that you were just talking about? That would be very beneficial to those of us on either side of the criticism/creative divide.
AJW: I don’t want to be jumping in and stumping for interdisciplinarity in some naive way, but I do think that, especially as television takes up more and more of the cultural landscape, it would be great for screenwriters, directors, anybody who lives and breathes in this world, to try and understand the other side, the criticism side, of it more. There are certainly universities that do a great job with this. I mean, USC is a movie university. Much of the work that they do, whether it’s critical or creative, is involved in LA and in the film and television business. You know there are very kind of recherche approaches to the same question, like the really wonderful program in visual and environmental studies at Harvard. There are creative writing programs that have screenwriters in them, increasingly. I would love to have a job in one of them. I think there’s as many ways to keep encouraging conversation and collaboration as there are institutions. I will say there are a lot of former academics, especially theater people, in the entertainment industry now who will be like, by the way, I have a degree, and that’s been a really interesting part of the experience. I’m sure that will happen more and more because of the collapse of the academic labor market.
ME: Annie, I was struck by something you said earlier in our conversation about how you feel like you’re teaching people in Hollywood about things like narratology, without necessarily calling it that. And I am interested in how your perceive your pedagogical function. One of the things that made me feel very proud of what I do, of what we do, were the representations of teaching on the show. If there is a kind of humanist heart to the show, the family story might be one chamber of it and the teaching is another. We’ve spoken a lot about how you think about your role as a critic and creator. How did this change the way that you think about your function or your purpose as a teacher?
SC: Can I jump in and add another element? This really goes nicely with one of the questions from the Q&A about your experience in academia as a writer and as a teacher. Marissa asks, “Are there any other skills you developed from your time in the academy that serve you well as a screenwriter?” I think this sort of dovetails with what Merve is asking about teaching as a practice.
AJW: I’m gonna take care of your chunk of the question first, Sarah, because I think I can be relatively constrained. Spending time with younger people, absolutely. I am, I hate to say it, no longer particularly young. I’m turning 36 next week. But when I was teaching at Claremont, one of the big Avengers movies came out, Infinity War, and you’re like, ooh, Infinity War, okay, maybe no thanks. But they were so excited, my smart students. They could not wait to go and sit and be blasted by spectacle. One of them was like crying, he was so happy. Seeing that in them made me believe them. It helped me put aside some judgments, aesthetic judgments, judgments of other kinds. Feeling like I’m still living in our moment has been really important to me, and students help with that. As for the teaching question, do I feel like I’m going around teaching in this new environment? Yeah, I kind of do. I was gonna sort of laugh and say like, Am I still annoying? Like, yeah. I love to be, like, “Did you know about this or that?” I had a conversation with a producer this morning. He was like, “I’m going to Rome.” And I was like, “Did you know they used to sail boats in the Coliseum because they filled it up with water, and that’s one of the origins of like mass entertainment in the West?” And he’s like, “Uh, cool.” You know? Part of that is my personality. Part of that is having gone through pedagogical training. But also, if you’re making culture together, the more you can share, the better the product is and the better you can judge if somebody has the same sensibility, and the more you can feel like you’re doing something of value for them. So yeah, I like to show up with that aspect of myself. It does get funny, and I’ve gotten to the point where I just feel okay with being that kind of funny.
SC: There are so many excellent questions, and I’m looking at trying to look at all of them. I did see one very nice comment that said that one of our current viewers was a former chair and thanks you for doing a great job and that you should keep writing. One of the questions that caught my eye a little while ago goes back to the response that you gave to my question about the Asian American family plotline, and — I almost just said Sandra as though I know her now — what Sandra said and brought into her development of the character and therefore into the show. Vicki asks, “Was the process for the other characters of color in the show the same as the one you described for Sandra Oh’s character?” Did you see a lot of those other experiences? And to go along with what you said about seeing young people and knowing young people, the other question I had was about the student experience, too, and bringing that specifically into the writing of the show.
AJW: I think because The Chair’s showrunner is an actor, she has a lot of faith in actors’ ability to craft their own characters. You have a script, but, especially when it comes to actors of color, the specificities of that experience, the truth of it, that maybe somebody who looks like me or somebody who looks like Amanda wouldn’t understand, you just give it over to the talented people that you’ve brought on board to do the thing. So I would say, yes, similar process with other characters, with Yaz. And then could you remind me of the second part of the question?
SC: Similarly, the depiction of the students. You mentioned that you were teaching recently, but in writing it, did you bring student voices directly into it?
AJW: There were younger writers in the writers’ room. I would say some of the scenes that interests me the most are — and I wouldn’t have said this five or seven years ago — the scenes that show naivete on the part of students. I’m thinking of the moment when Ji-Yoon is listening to a couple of students threaten or berate her about how Yaz was been treated. They’re both totally right and being totally obnoxious and explaining to her structural racism, and she’s like, yes, thank you. I think we tried to — and finally it’s up to other people to decide if we succeeded — I think we tried to show students and student activism as both precious and as human as any other undertaking, right? Righteous but also self-righteous, you know? There’s a part of me that that wishes honestly that we had done more with the kids, to make a clean breast of it, but, you know. You can never get everything you want from any show.
ME: There are a couple of comments in the Q&A about Holland Taylor’s character, who I think really is one of the most memorable characters on the show. And I was thinking about how, speaking only from my own experience, one of the things I have found surprising and disappointing and harder than I thought it should have been, was constructing cross-generational solidarity between women academics. Another moment where I felt like the reality of the show was overpowering or some kind of wall was getting broken, was when Joan goes to complain about her office and makes comments about a younger woman’s fanny showing. You already mentioned that Amanda’s obviously thinking about aging and what the role is of women as they get older, and you’ve already confessed to turning 36 next week--which, you know, how dare you--but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you saw as the problems and the possibilities of cross-generational solidarity between lady academics or lady co-creators.
AJW: Yeah, I mean, we do see Ji-Yoon disappoint Joan repeatedly. And then Joan makes (I’m sorry for the spoiler) a decision to try and remove Ji-Yoon. She takes it back, but their friendship I hope is like a real friendship in that it’s fraught, it’s further complicated by the age difference. I think this was really a virtue of the way that the show was made. There were moments when I would say something about my experience as a woman, and Amanda’s eyebrows would fly off her head, and vice versa. It’s the same with me and my mother. I think this is a kind of interaction that we all have — not just women academics but women. We want solidarity — and yet. I’m always really struck by the scenes with Joan like the one where she says: I hope nobody comes here to report a Title IX thing and has to see your fanny or whatever. That scene is better because it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s the hard truth about how Title IX offices should be run. In fact, I find that scene difficult to watch. But my mother found it very funny. Just having to sit with that is important. And it makes better drama, honestly.
SC: There are a number of questions that I would love to ask from the Q&A. Can I ask one short one, and then maybe, Merve, you can take one more if you like. There are a few questions about about Dobson’s character’s downfall and the choice to make the instigating event, the Heil Hitler salute. The particular depiction of that was very interesting to me, the students filming him in the classroom and the kind of meme-iness, meme-worthiness, of that gesture. There are a few questions about how that, how you decided on that as the incident. I mean there are any number of things, obviously, as we know, that people do but get them cancelled, but did you know from the beginning that that was going to be the instigating event of the that plotline?
AJW: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of the questions about this online, and I think Amanda has addressed it. It’s an incident taken from life, from something that happened at her high school. She went to a Quaker school in New York, and I guess the original incident was a math professor demonstrating that a right angle — I’m not gonna do it — looked a certain way with his arm, and then he went ahead and made the joke and the whirlwind of shit descended. That was something that Amanda really wanted to keep. She wanted it to be harmless, that mistake, so that the show could think through that particular problem. I’ve seen some questions about why we didn’t have Bill do something much more serious, why he wasn’t, you know, an actual creep or something. And, honestly, because that would be a much different show. It would be less of a comedy and more of a drama for the Me Too era. I hope somebody makes that show, but The Chair wanted to be something else.
SC: Great, thank you. I apologize for my cat — he’s like trying to take over the Zoom. Merve, do you want to ask one last question from the chat.
ME: I want to pick up on part of Elaine Showalter’s question from the chat, where in her final sentence of the question she references satire. We were talking earlier with Sarah about campus fiction and how satirical a great deal of campus fiction is. And there’s been a little bit of debate about whether The Chair is intended to be satire, or whether it is satirical, and I’m curious to know whether that was a term that came up in the writing of the show.
AJW: I always think of myself as writing comedy and not satire. I understand, and I think it’s great and true that there are moments of real satire in the show. I think that’s one of its modes. But for better or worse, I’m a Northrop Frye person. I think of satire as being destructive and chilly and involving punching down and no real proposition of the future and so forth and so on. And I always wanted everything I write to leave the viewer with some hope. That’s very literal at the end of The Chair. We’re thinking about how to move forward even if we can’t quite articulate what that would look like for each of these characters or this institution. I hope that we never lampooned anyone to the point of real pain. That’s never been really what I wanted to do with my work. When I say things like, well, I’m a comedy person, that means I love people, or other things equally fundamentally optimistic.
ME: I thought the character development was very even-handed in that way. Appropriately complicated but well balanced. But what you say about hope is so interesting because, of course, right now we’re in a moment — in many industries, but I am thinking specifically about the academy — where for many people things feel hopeless. And I wonder, because you said you just watched the last episode again, I wonder what you think about the value of hope, of giving people hope.
AJW: Wow, that’s such a question, you know, in both senses of the word. Already, I feel like I have to like help and build ladders for colleagues and basically anybody interested in current academic work, so there’s that part of it. I don’t have a lot of hope for the discipline. If I did, I wouldn’t be so convinced that I need to lend a hand. We all try and help people find a path that isn’t just the straight on to the tenure track sort of thing. I feel deeply concerned and scared about the new sort of very malignant conversations about critical race theory and what place universities do or don’t have given our political climate. I’m just going to keep this as abstract as I can because we all know what I’m talking about and how scary it is. I finally feel like there’s nothing left to do but hope. And there’s a lot of precedent for that that comes from within the humanities. I feel like every time I say the name of a theorist I want to die of dorkiness and embarrassment, but we used to sit around and talk about Bloch, the Frankfurt school stuff — like, what do you do when there is no hope? Well, you hope. So, without being naive about actual material conditions, that’s, I think, the only thing that I can do.
SC: Thank you. On that note, let us all continue to hope. Thank you, Annie. Thank you, Merve. Thank you everyone who asked a question, and everyone who joined us for this event. Speaking of fizzy conversations, please remember what Irene said at the top of this event, which is that we at LARB are hosting a series of events on the Semipublic Intellectual. Not sure how any of us identify in that range of things, but you can come to our talks and find out. Please also take a look at our 10th anniversary page, and thank you very much. Thank you everyone for joining us today.
* The Chair Photo Credit: Eliza Morse/Netflix