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The Harvard PhD Turned Screenwriter Behind Netflix’s Hit ‘The Chair’

How Annie Julia Wyman transitioned from Cambridge to Hollywood and cocreated Netflix’s academic drama with Amanda Peet

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The Chair is not a documentary. Anyone who has so much as set foot in a quadrangle could tell you that professors are lucky if their offices have windows, let alone the wood paneling or ample square footage of the rooms at Pembroke University. Nor do academic colleagues tend to have the live-wire chemistry of Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass, the stars who play two scholars caught in the crosshairs of campus controversy and institutional change. The six-episode Netflix series fits into a proud tradition of campus fiction, from Lucky Jim to Changing Places, and The Chair’s Pembroke—not to be confused with the University of North Carolina satellite or Brown’s erstwhile women’s college—is fictional in more ways than one.

But for all its exaggerations, the show is still rooted in the concerns of real-life academia. When Oh’s Ji-Yoon Kim becomes the first non-white, non-male faculty member to chair Pembroke’s English department, she’s immediately confronted by the Gordian knot of intractable issues that plague higher education. Ji-Yoon is tasked with stemming her department’s ebbing tide of enrollments, a mandate from the endowment-minded dean, while also preserving the integrity of her embattled area of study. She wants to advocate for other women of color, grossly underrepresented in her profession, but also protect the older academics at risk of getting left behind by changing times. As tenure-track jobs go the way of the dodo, soft disciplines like the humanities have to justify their own existence, and campus culture wars remain in the spotlight of the national media, The Chair speaks to all-too-real anxieties among the intellectual set.

Here is where I ought to disclose my own bias: I’m the child of an English professor, one I’ve interviewed for this website. For people like my dad, The Chair is something like Star Wars meets the Super Bowl; according to the texts I received this weekend, the show has managed to meet sky-high expectations. And that enthusiasm isn’t just coming from the ivory tower; following its release last Friday, The Chair has stayed squarely in Netflix’s Top 10, joining the likes of Grace and Frankie and Outer Banks. The average viewer may be more engaged by the presence of a Grey’s Anatomy alum than the casual references to affect theory, but it’s possible they’re picking up on the authenticity underneath.

Much of that authenticity comes from cocreator Annie Julia Wyman, who has an unusual credential for a Hollywood screenwriter: a PhD from Harvard, where she earned her doctorate in 2017 after penning her dissertation on the comic novel. Wyman joined forces with Amanda Peet, who shares creator credit, when the actress and playwright reached out while researching her nascent concept for a workplace comedy set in an old-school English department. Peet met with plenty of professors during this fact-finding phase, but few who already had a pilot script in development, as Wyman did. Soon enough, Wyman went from potential consultant to full-blown collaborator.

Peet’s idea formed the genesis for The Chair, which is executive produced by her husband David Benioff and his Game of Thrones partner D.B. Weiss under their overall deal with Netflix. (An academic farce is perhaps not what the streaming service had in mind when it spent $200 million on the duo best known for a fantasy epic, but what is The Chair if not a lower-stakes power struggle for another kind of seat?) But Wyman brought her own experience to bear on the subject at hand. “I didn’t really know much about academia,” Peet tells The Ringer. “Especially the hierarchy: the different positions you can hold, the committees, the relationship between graduate students and professors, and nontenured professors and professors, and the precarity of graduate students.” As a former graduate student herself who taught undergraduate courses as recently as last spring, Wyman knew that precarity all too well.

After graduating college in 2008, Wyman came to postsecondary education the way many millennials did: as a way to wait out the recession. “I have what’s called a weak ego,” she says, laughing. “I respond very well to people’s suggestions.” So when her bachelor’s degree in creative writing left her with few options apart from a job in “online reputation management”—a euphemistic term for “manipulating search results”—Wyman was open to a suggestion from a former adviser at Stanford: Why not read and write for a living in grad school? She made her way to Cambridge, where she penned her dissertation advancing “a new trans-historical theorization of comic art.”

Partway through her studies, though, Wyman got another suggestion that changed the course of her career: a Facebook message from a college acquaintance who’d become a film producer. When the two met for dinner in Manhattan, the producer suggested Wyman—who thought the out-of-the-blue invitation might have been a date—try her hand at writing a movie. “At that point I was like, ‘This is not a date, and I’m being scammed,’” Wyman recalls. But she gave it a shot anyway, spending half her graduate stipend on a copy of the screenwriting program Final Draft and auditing a few courses at Harvard to learn the basics.

If, as the truism holds, there’s nothing less funny than explaining a joke, then the transition from studying comedy to writing it shouldn’t be an easy one. In general, analysis and expression are two very distinct modes; it takes a completely different mindset to break down a piece of television, as Wyman did in freelance pieces like a review of Rick and Morty for the Los Angeles Review of Books, than to create a fictional world. As Wyman’s undergrad major suggests, her interest in telling stories predates her interest in studying them. But she still believes her time in academia has been more of a help than a hindrance.

“All worlds need rules,” she says. “And I think I understand the rules of the worlds that I both want to build and enjoy interacting with pretty clearly, because of my background.” As a recent example, Wyman points to the dramatic conclusion of The White Lotus, in which—spoilers beware!—hotel manager Armond dies at the hands of an entitled guest. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a really old and really effective technique: to kill the clown,’” she says. “I understand the deep resonance of that because I’ve studied clowns. A TV writer would watch that and say, ‘That’s cool, I’m going to crib from that.’ And I can say, ‘That’s cool, I’m going to crib from that, and I’m going to know exactly why, and I’m going to feel connected to a couple of centuries of dramatic history.’” She pauses. “I don’t mean to put so much air in my own tires, but it is really helpful for me as a writer.”

By the time Wyman earned her doctorate, she had both a manager and a script in development—a pilot called Hot Blonde optioned by her producer friend. In lieu of going on the academic job market, an increasingly dismal prospect even for graduates of elite institutions, she opted to move to Los Angeles. While trying to get her foot even further in Hollywood’s door, she bided her time by teaching a class about the development of the short story at Claremont McKenna. After six months of treading water, she finally got another fateful Facebook message, this one from Benioff’s assistant. Peet was researching a new project; would she like to chat?

To update the campus farce, Wyman and Peet had to steer straight into the skid of modern discourse. For a show that takes on some of the most hotly debated issues in American culture, The Chair ends up surprisingly even-handed in its treatment of campus disputes. When Duplass’s character Bill Dobson—a beloved teacher still reeling from the death of his wife—is recorded making an ill-advised Nazi salute during a speech about art’s power to fight fascism, the clip inevitably makes the rounds on the internet. Yes, the outraged students are taking Bill’s actions out of context, and Pembroke’s pupils are largely portrayed from the professors’ point of view: as an alien species the faculty want to engage but can’t quite understand. But Bill also refuses to apologize or even take the issue seriously, an arrogance that throws Ji-Yoon under the bus and shows the students’ frustration is partly justified, even if their specific grievance may not be.

That ambiguity is partly the result of the writers’ room, which ranged from figures like Peet to recent college graduates like staff writer Jen Kim, with Wyman somewhere in the middle. “It was really important to me to have that intergenerational tension,” Peet says. “So it was really great to have these different age groups in the room. It was critical.” The clashing perspectives in the show reflect the ones among the show’s creative voices. “It came about through a certain amount of both agreement that these stories need to be explored and disagreement about their final disastrous or not-so-disastrous effects on society,” Wyman says of the show’s treatment of topics like campus free speech. (Blessedly, no one says the words “cancel culture” out loud.) “I would sometimes say something that I thought was totally unobjectionable and Amanda would be like, ‘What?!’ and vice versa. It was a virtue of this collaboration that there was substantial difference.”

In The Chair, such differences exist not just between students and faculty, but among faculty themselves. Young professor Yaz (Nana Mensah) is a superstar whose classes are packed to the gills, but she has to fight uphill for tenure against old guard member Elliot (Bob Balaban), reflecting recent controversies around Black faculty members like Cornel West, Lorgia García Peña, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. But considering the cringe-inducing Hamilton riff Yaz’s students perform when asked for a more unorthodox take on Moby Dick, it’s clear The Chair doesn’t always think newer forms of pedagogy are better. Would Yaz really be doing her students a disservice if she just assigned them a regular essay?

Still, there’s a notable absence among The Chair’s interdepartmental factions: adjunct faculty, the non-tenure-track contingent workers who make up a growing portion of university teaching staff. More than the facilities or the cameo from David Duchovny, himself something of a lapsed scholar, it’s this omission that most distances The Chair from reality—including Wyman’s own. Unfortunately, it’s just not a story The Chair had space for in its compact three-hour running time, says Wyman. “You never get everything you want on a show. It’s just never going to work out that way. There’s so many different layers, so many different stakeholders, so many different opinions.” She also points to subplots like the dean demanding Ji-Yoon push out older, higher-paid professors like Elliot or Holland Taylor’s Joan Hambling, pressures that come from the same mercenary, penny-pinching place as the choice not to invest in good, stable jobs for aspiring academics.

Still, Wyman hopes someone finds a way to capture the adjunct experience, possibly by adapting an entry from the microgenre known as “quit lit.” (The name is somewhat self-explanatory.) “Those stories are reflective of a very specific millennial predicament,” she says. “You thought you were going to have nice things; you don’t have any nice things. You thought you were going to be an educator; in fact, you’re a glorified grader of papers that’s living out of your car.” It’s also a shared trait of academia and Hollywood, two isolated bubbles inflated by ego but hopefully based in a good-faith love of knowledge and/or art. What the adjunct is to the academy, the writer squeezed by shrinking episode orders and years-long, unpaid development is to television—a business Wyman calls “glorified gig work.”

Like many stories about clashing creative types, The Chair also works as an allegory for show business. “It’s very, very relatable for me,” Peet says. “I’m an actress who’s turning 50. So the notion of confronting your irrelevance—I think about it a lot.” Yet there’s a note of nostalgia in how Wyman looks back on her old field compared to her current one. “It’s a gentler world,” she says of academia, a fact reflected in The Chair’s warm, collegial tone. “There’s less at stake, so there’s less that goes on that’s, in some metaphorical way, murderous.”

Wyman has already moved on, developing new projects and staffing on the upcoming HBO Max drama Tokyo Vice. But she remains as cognizant as ever of how unusual, and how fortunate, her path has been thus far. “My career, as much as it’s been really hard work, it’s also been two lucky lightning strikes,” she says of the Facebook missives that got her where she is. For now, though, “my failing upward continues.”