Much like the TV show that chemist Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) hosts, Apple TV+’s 1950s period drama Lessons in Chemistry is more than capable of tackling multiple ideas at once. The eight-part limited series more than meets any anticipation drummed up by its source material – the smash-hit debut novel by Bonnie Garmus – in its depiction of a woman who refuses to give up on her career no matter how many obstacles she faces. Elizabeth isn’t the only rule-breaker we meet along the way: While she’s the face of the fictional cooking program Supper at Six, the people Elizabeth slowly begins to trust are equally vital to making both the show and its show-within-the-show sing.
Combining themes like family, faith, and science with hot-button topics like systemic racism and sexism occasionally adds too many ingredients. However, Lessons in Chemistry does pull back when needed, and Larson (also an executive producer) captivates in a role that taps into her range of skills as a performer, calling on her to play stoically defiant, confidentially competent, and unrestrictedly vulnerable.
Breaking Gender Barriers
Moving between the lab, a TV studio, and domestic spaces effectively captures how women of Elizabeth’s time were limited to specific roles. At the prestigious Hastings Research Institute, she’s often mistaken for a secretary by both her male peers and the women in the typing pool. Without a Ph.D., the lab tech has to grin and bear the daily menial tasks like making coffee or searching for spare equipment. If this doesn’t get the point across, then the humiliating experience of being forced to partake in a workplace Little Miss Hastings beauty pageant underscores the rampant misogyny she faces from all sides. The first episode quickly establishes Elizabeth’s lone wolf status and the backward attitudes at this so-called forward-thinking institution.
The Power of Chemistry
Some male colleagues oversell this point, though no one is quite as mustache-twirlingly sexist as her future TV boss, Phil (Rainn Wilson). Without an ally in either workplace, Lessons in Chemistry could quickly become a grim watch – two episodes start with trigger warning title cards – but Lessons in Chemistry maintains a balance between bleak reality and wish fulfillment. Romance tentatively flourishes, and in the first few episodes, a transition from enemies to lovers sets this story alight: Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) is a brilliant scientist who prefers his own company to that of the boarish Hastings scientists, and his inevitable collision with Elizabeth offers a delightful respite from the hostile environment.
It is impossible to discuss Larson and Pullman without using the other meaning of “chemistry” – they have oodles of it, and it is equally satisfying watching them shed inhibitions with one another. Some of their differences are a little on the nose, such as his love for jazz and her distaste for the seemingly chaotic genre. However, it also leads to a lovely thread about dancing that is revisited throughout the season. It doesn’t matter if other people are around, because when these two are on screen, everything and everyone else fades into the background.
A Strong Performance From Brie Larson
Seven years have passed since Larson won the Best Actress Oscar for Room, and this is one of her most traditionally dramatic roles since. While she has certainly shone in blockbusters like Captain Marvel, it’s great to see her return to Earth. Here, she gets to flex various acting muscles while slowly peeling back Elizabeth’s layers. Prickliness isn’t completely eroded as time passes, and her guard is understandably high whenever she enters a new (and often male-dominated) environment. Being an opinionated woman at work is not usually tolerated, and Elizabeth’s forthright temperament is at odds with the time. Rather than make her a caricature, creator Lee Eisenberg softens some of those edges without losing Elizabeth’s fire – or her flaws.
A Complex Allyship
In Garmus’ novel, Elizabeth has a significant friendship with her neighbor Harriet Sloane, a Catholic, middle-aged woman who lives across the street with her aggressive husband. The Harriet of Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry pretty much only shares her counterpart’s name and proximity to Elizabeth. It’s a choice of adaptation that makes the story better: Aja Naomi King plays Harriet, and without going too far into spoiler territory (beyond what’s in the trailer), she takes on a significant role in Elizabeth’s life. But she’s also given hopes and dreams outside of Elizabeth’s battles. What could have been a surface-level nod to the racism of the 1950s goes deeper (although it could go even further), and Harriet fights to save their neighborhood from a planned highway development. It’s a story based on real events impacting Black communities, and tests Elizabeth on whether she is as much of an ally as she says she is. King is excellent in her role and isn’t simply offering a supportive shoulder, expressing a spectrum of emotions as complex as her screen partner’s.
A Mother-Daughter Bond
Unlike the recent The Last Thing He Told Me, which closely stuck to the novel’s plot, Lessons in Chemistry offers a masterclass in how to trim and alter a bestseller for the screen. Elizabeth’s close bond with her young daughter Madeline (Alice Halsey) is one dynamic that stays true to the source material. Time jumps and flashbacks help maintain a steady pace, though the second half of the series is made more cohesive by pieces of Elizabeth and Calvin’s tale and the way Madeline comes into her own. Casting believable child actors can be tricky, and Madeline’s intelligence could come across as too mature, but newcomer Halsey is curious without being overly precocious. In Room, Larson’s onscreen relationship with Jacob Tremblay’s Jack was a highlight, and once again she finds herself part of a mother-child bond that feels lived-in and entirely believable. They say you should never work with animals or children, but Lessons in Chemistry requires both, and Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty (played by a Goldendoodle named Gus), is another standout performer.
A Love Letter to TV
Another cornerstone of Lessons in Chemistry is Supper at Six, the TV series Elizabeth reluctantly agrees to host at the invitation of producer Walter (Kevin Sussman). She goes about her new job like it is a science project, looking up ratings information and watching how other hosts speak to their audience – both in the studio and at home. Building a rapport with viewers isn’t just about having a fun catchphrase or a cute kitchen set design, and Elizabeth’s honest approach is revelatory. This love letter to TV in its infancy and the personalities who capture our hearts is particularly compelling, as is the relationship between Walter and his new hire.
Food as a source of comfort and coping is an idea introduced at this early stage, showcasing how Elizabeth approaches what she makes in the kitchen with the same scientific eye as her DNA research. She stores spices in test tubes, further blurring the line between the kitchen and the laboratory. Production designer Cat Smith’s eye for detail and the specificity of these elements add to the unique world Elizabeth is building. Similarly, costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier utilizes Elizabeth’s closet to reflect how this character pushes back and (on occasion) falls in line, and the evolution…