“You all need a pick-me-up over there, some new blood, some star power,” says a trustee to the chair of the English department, in an early episode of the Netflix academic comedy The Chair. “I happened to run into such a person at the farmers’ market, if you can believe it! He has a country house around here. We started talking and I thought, Here’s the kind of person who can revitalize the study of literature.” As the chair—Ji-Yoon, played by Sandra Oh—visibly blanches, I guessed gleefully that the “new blood” she would be forced to award the prize of delivering her department’s prestigious lecture would be James Franco, Ph.D. But nope: it’s David Duchovny! “Agent Scully himself!” says the dean. The trustee corrects him: “Mulder!”
Duchovny is the perfect choice for this show. The actor was a Ph.D. student at Yale, studying literature, in the 1980s. He was also a frustrated poet and novelist, looking for a mode of creative expression that fit. Duchovny told All Things Considered in 2015 that he started going on acting auditions as a graduate student, thinking a little experience delivering lines might help him with playwriting. One commercial led to another, and the money was good; he landed the X-Files role, and never went back to finish the doctorate. Recently, he’s published four novels, and put out three albums. The latest of those dropped this week, just as The Chair, with its cameo featuring a little bit of Duchovny’s singing and guitar-playing, hit Netflix.
The Duchovny turn in The Chair is quite flattering to the actor. Look at this fun guy! He’s game for a little visual humor at his own expense: when he’s introduced, after Ji-Yoon goes to his McMansion to try to talk him out of doing the lecture, he gets out of his indoor pool and stands in front of Oh, at age 61, with only a tiny Speedo on—a callback to an iconic moment from The X-Files. (She stumbles into a plant, mumbling “I thought you were naked!”—to which he replies, quite dryly, “Interesting.”) He banters with Ji-Yoon about the pronunciation of the word “prescient.” He asks whether Pembroke (Ji-Yoon’s fictional employer) had invited other celebrity academics first, and seems genuinely hurt when she tells him they had talked about Franco, and Ethan Hawke, but they weren’t available.
In exchange for this little bit of game-ness, the show gives Duchovny a minute to sing a song, and lets him look like a mensch. He is willing to let Ji-Yoon tell him, in no uncertain terms, how outdated his scholarship is—to hear her out as she lists off developments in the field since his time in school: “Affect theory, ecocriticism, digital humanities, new materialism, book history, developments in gender studies and critical race theory … When’s the last time you picked up an academic journal?” He even listens as she makes a moral argument, insisting that his plan of going back to school to get a Ph.D. is “self-serving.” “Teaching is not a pastime, it’s a profession,” she tells him. In the end, he actually backs down, allowing her to return the honor to the one who deserves it: her young, rising-star colleague, Yaz.
This celebrity cameo, while it made me like David Duchovny, also made me respect The Chair. It was smart to bring a charismatic person, who once aspired to do what these professors did, into a show about the declining value of that profession. The deans and trustees and the whole world ask the professors in The Chair why anyone should care about what they do, as the motley crew of colleagues struggles to get students to sign up for their courses. One answer the higher-ups come up with: Let’s associate ourselves with this famous person who did it—at least he’s sold books, tons of them. (“Students want to produce content!” the dean tells Ji-Yoon, trying to convince her Duchovny is the right choice, as her frustration mounts.) The years-out-of-date dilettante celebrity probably could get “butts in seats,” as the dean says, and he’s certainly the only kind of person who can afford to go back to school to finish a Ph.D. just out of love. The envy and fury the English professors feel at his existence is palpable—and perfectly justified.
As Twitter digested The Chair, writer Patrick Radden Keefe shared a photo of a flyleaf of a copy of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which Keeffe said he had purchased in a used bookstore in New Haven a few decades back.* The inscription reads “David Duchovny, 12/87.” For us frustrated ex-grad-students, the image was too perfect. This was a snapshot of a moment in time, when this handsome actor loved the things we loved, before he went on to turn his talents into much more money than we’ll ever see. “Country house” money; “leave acting behind and become a novelist” money; beautiful indoor pool money. That’s what leaving Beckett behind will get you.
Correction, Sept. 7, 2021: This article originally misspelled Patrick Radden Keefe’s last name.