Zooming Eve: academic satire in the coronavirus era

Paul Greatrix is excited about a university-themed "dramedy" set during the Covid-19 lockdown - coming soon to Netflix.

Everyone loves a TV programme or movie about higher education. Particularly if they are half way decent, which occasionally they are. We’ve looked before at some portrayals of university leaders on the big and small screen but also enjoyed speculation about the possibility of the return of Blackadder as an academic.

We’ve also looked at a range of movies and TV programmes set in universities and colleges and some of them are quite good.

Killing leave

Recently though the very exciting news of a new TV show featuring the incomparable Sandra Oh, of Killing Eve fame, as Chair of an English Department in a leading university (presumably in the US). As noted in the Chronicle

Academics channeled their inner screenwriter this past weekend after the news broke that Sandra Oh would be starring as a department chair at a major university in a coming series on Netflix.
It wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, university would be depicted in The Chair, which will feature Oh, the star of Killing Eve, as chair of an English department. Deadline described the series — written by the actress Amanda Peet with Annie Julia Wyman, who earned a Ph.D. at Harvard — as a “dramedy.”

“Dramedy” is a dreadful term which I’m sure most English academics would scoff at – what is wrong with “comedy drama”? –  but let’s hope it earns the label. I’m particularly interested to see how university administrators are represented in the programme – especially as I’m still trying to get over my disappointment (after all this time) at the fleeting involvement of Ronald Cardew as the Registrar in Lucky Jim.

The Dramedy challenge

But the huge “dramedy” challenge for The Chair will, of course, be how the English Department responds as the university shuts down in response to the Coronavirus. I’m not sure the rapid switch to online learning, developing the new assessment methods and all those MS Teams meetings, not to mention the numerous difficulties of coming to terms with home working really offer huge comedy and drama potential. Likewise, as the Chair seeks to lead her distributed team of academic and administrative colleagues and support a scattered group of students there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of humorous possibility there.

If it ever does go ahead, will The Chair measure up against the best higher ed TV programmes we’ve discussed before? Especially the landmark oldies such as Porterhouse Blue, Nice Work and, of course, A Very Peculiar Practice which set a high benchmark for all HE comedy. Community, Fresh Meat and The Big Bang Theory are among the better more recent efforts Sandra Oh will be hoping to outperform.

I can’t wait to see it and whether it is able to draw out any humour from the latest challenging circumstances everyone in higher education is facing. I’m sceptical to be honest. But I could be completely wrong of course. It could turn out to be the first genuinely funny post-Covid-19 academic dramedy. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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