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Netflix’s Partner Track could have been a powerful examination of racism at work

Instead, its messy execution gets in the way.

In the show “Partner Track,” Ingrid Yun (played by Arden Cho) stands with four white men. She is wearing a pink skirt and jacket while the men are all wearing dark blue suits. Netflix

In some ways, Partner Track, a Netflix show based on the 2013 novel by Helen Wan, is trying to make an interesting point. A series centered on Ingrid Yun (Arden Cho), a senior associate attempting to become partner at a corporate law firm in New York City, the show offers important commentary about the sexism and racism that women and people of color face in ultra-white, ultra-male spaces.

That focus has been praised by some for its relatability. There are the moments when Ingrid’s colleagues take credit for her work, when they’re given better assignments simply because they have more social rapport with their boss, and when they’re elevated for mediocre performance when she’s the one putting in the time. In addition to the microaggressions the show captures, there are explicit acts of discrimination it spotlights, including a racist standup routine that one of the associates performs at a corporate retreat, the attempt to push out a Black employee who complains about it, and the decision to skip over Ingrid for one of the partner slots in favor of one of her significantly less-qualified male counterparts.

It’s still rare for a television show to center the perspective of an Asian American woman, and even more for viewers to experience biases that exist in the workplace through her eyes. Had the show committed to examining office disparities in a more thoughtful way, it could have been quite powerful. Instead, it takes a half-hearted approach to these issues and puts more emphasis on myriad other dramas.

At its heart, Partner Track is not a hard-hitting look at racial politics and microaggressions in the office. It’s mostly a glossy soap opera about kissing in business suits.

Still, much like its namesake novel, it’s trying to say something about the systems in place that prevent women and people of color from advancing in the workplace, and how even those marginalized by these structures are often keen to reinforce them. Partner Track fails to effectively do so because it doesn’t invest enough in that focus and gets side-tracked by everything else.

Partner Track has something to say about workplace inequities

Partner Track’s most compelling storylines take place at work, and they involve two main conflicts.

The first is a racist standup routine that’s performed by Dan Fallon (Nolan Gerard Funk), one of the white male associates at the law firm, during the company’s corporate retreat. Fallon, a glib and arrogant attorney who has generally fratty vibes, does a set mocking the idea of white fragility.

“Remember when we all used to call disclosures ‘opening the kimono’?” says Fallon. “If someone were to tell you that now that is both racist and sexist, or what I used to call, twice the spice, and you were to say something like, ‘But my college girlfriend was Japanese,’” that would be another prime example of, louder for the folks in the back: white fragility.”

While several members of the audience, including Ingrid and her friend Tyler (Bradley Gibson), who is Black, are appalled during the performance, most of the attorneys seem to find Fallon’s comments cringeworthy but entertaining. In the end, he walks off the stage to laughter and applause.

Tyler winds up leaving the event, while Ingrid confronts her boss, Marty (Matthew Rauch), who pledges to conduct an internal review. Though Human Resources concludes that Dan should be put on probation, management ultimately decides that he’ll get a slap on the wrist because his clients are too valuable to the company.

That conclusion is a breaking point for Tyler, but not Ingrid. In an attempt to test her commitment to the company, Marty sends Ingrid to offer her friend a $500,000 severance package if he keeps quiet about his concerns. It’s an assignment she takes on despite how wrong it is, and how big of a betrayal it is of their friendship. Her decision to do so is devastating; a clear illustration of how someone can become complicit in the very systems that oppress them if they believe those power structures will wind up rewarding them. In defense of herself, Ingrid frames the decision as “the hard choices that partners have to make.”

Ingrid’s devotion to making partner is the other throughline and conflict in the show. In addition to throwing her friend under the bus, Ingrid agrees to chair the firm’s diversity gala, an event where she’s effectively used as a prop to improve the company’s image. She’s made to read a prewritten speech about being a “proud Asian American female lawyer” who’s willing to downplay the firm’s recent shortcomings.

Separately, her prime work responsibility is a major energy acquisition deal, which she works tirelessly to complete, despite knowing it could have ruinous environmental consequences.

After running point and guaranteeing that the $2.5 billion deal goes off without a hitch, Ingrid and her colleagues widely expect her to be named as one of the three new partners in her division that year. In what feels like a slow-motion horror movie moment, she’s passed over when the announcement is made in favor of Jeff Murphy (Dominic Sherwood), the more junior associate on the same project. There’s no real logic to this decision as Murphy is repeatedly shown cutting corners on his work and leaving Ingrid to handle the most difficult tasks — not to mention sleeping with one of the firm’s clients. (A twist later on offers some insight to the slight but not enough to justify the decision.)

As Wan has said, the events she describes in the novel, many of which are also included in the television show, include some based on real-life experiences and are intended to raise awareness about the systemic problems at white-shoe law firms.

“I was not seeing any stories being written about believable, contemporary stories about — specifically Asian American professionals, not Asian professionals — who were trying to climb the corporate ladder. I was not seeing any realistic portrayals of that,” Wan said in a 2013 interview.

The environment and lack of diversity in Partner Track is very much a reflection of actual issues that many law firms have. Just 10 percent of all law firm partners are people of color, according to a 2020 survey by the National Association for Law Placement, which also found that Asian American attorneys make up 12 percent of the lawyers at the associate level, while Black attorneys make up 5 percent, and Latino attorneys make up 6 percent, with the latter two groups being especially underrepresented. White attorneys are nearly twice as likely to be hired as partners as members of other racial groups, according to the American Bar Association. The work culture at law firms has also been called out for its hostility to women and people of color, who can be tokenized on projects or given less prominent assignments.

Ingrid’s failure to get promoted to partner also speaks specifically to the barriers to advancement that Asian American people have encountered in the workforce, a phenomenon that’s been called the “bamboo ceiling.” According to a Harvard Business Review piece by business executives Buck Gee and Denise Peck, Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted into management. “They’re more than 10 percent of the graduates of the top 30 law schools — yet ‘have the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates among all [racial] groups,’” they write. Overall, Asian Americans comprise 13 percent of the professional workforce and only 6 percent of executives, per data from the Ascend Foundation.

This discrepancy between workforce participation and representation in management is attributed to the fact that Asian Americans have been perceived as good workers, but not “leadership material” due to longstanding stereotypes.

“I killed myself for that deal — it would have fallen apart multiple times if not for me,” Ingrid says after the partner announcement is made.

“There is more to making partner than just doing your job,” Marty replies. It’s a statement that ignores her over-the-top commitment to the work as well as the clearly extraneous tasks she’s taken on.

“You were never going to give it to me,” Ingrid realizes.

Partner Track’s point gets diluted by the rest of the drama

Despite some of the meaningful themes it addresses, the rest of the show dilutes its impact.

In particular, the romantic subplots are very time-consuming and don’t make much sense. Ingrid is forced to choose between Nick (Rob Heaps), a philosophical billionaire who rushes her into a proposal, and Murphy, her colleague who repeatedly fails to pull his weight, both of whom the show doesn’t offer much reason to be invested in.

Nick is ultimately boring and clearly framed as the loser, while Murphy is both a bad coworker and unkind (in their first encounter, he pretends to forget who Ingrid is after they previously hooked up at a wedding). Additionally, the whole set-up is yet another one where the Asian American female lead has predominantly white male love interests, reinforcing a trope that’s been evident on other shows like The Mindy Project and The Summer I Turned Pretty. (Some fans hope that Zi-Xin Min (Desmond Chiam), a hot eco-warrior type who was part of the energy deal, could become a potential love interest next season.)

Similarly, a conflict with Ingrid’s artsy younger sister, Lina (Lena Ahn), which could have been an interesting examination of sibling dynamics and family expectations, becomes so convoluted that any emotional heft from the story is lost. Ultimately, the show seems to be checking off the boxes it thinks would make for a successful drama, much in the way Ingrid does the tasks needed to become partner, without really developing or reflecting on these plot points.

Even Partner Track’s examination of workplace inequities, arguably its strongest suit, could have been more fleshed out. The show doesn’t truly grapple with how Ingrid screws Tyler over in order to advance her own ambitions. And it gives short shrift to a promising storyline looking at Ingrid’s relationship with April (Carrie Vu), a younger Asian American attorney who is her mentee.

Additionally, Partner Track isn’t up to the task of scrutinizing its characters’ own roles in a broken system. The show frames Ingrid and Tyler as collateral damage, but they’re actively helping perpetuate it. Each has their own redemption arc, but they also spend most of the series using their legal expertise to help corporations crush small businesses and protect entrenched industries like oil and gas. Their moral concerns are underwritten at best.

Billed as a soapier version of a legal drama, Partner Track has something new to say — but its execution falls short of clearly communicating what that is.