For Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), the intrepid heroine of Apple TV+‘s Lessons in Chemistry, perfection is the ultimate goal. By the time we meet her, she’s made the same lasagna dish 78 times — each time with subtle and meticulously documented tweaks, in pursuit of a recipe that can’t possibly be further improved upon.
As evidenced by his obvious delight as Calvin (Lewis Pullman) sinks his teeth into her latest effort, though, a dish doesn’t need to be perfect to be pleasurable. Neither does a TV series. Lessons in Chemistry is far from flawless; even those (like me) who’ve never read the Bonnie Garmus novel on which it’s based will be able to feel the seams where the source material and the adaptation do not quite mesh. Nevertheless, it’s worth tucking into, thanks to an endearing cast, witty dialogue and easily digestible themes.
Lessons in Chemistry
The Bottom Line
Imperfect but tasty.
Airdate: Friday, Oct. 13 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, Aja Naomi King, Stephanie Koenig, Patrick Walker
Created by: Lee Eisenberg, based on the book by Bonnie Garmus
Lessons in Chemistry is at its sharpest and sweetest in its first two hourlong chapters, which set up the romance whose consequences will reverberate through the next six.
In 1950s Los Angeles, Elizabeth is a brilliant lab tech subjected to harassment and disrespect by her male colleagues; Calvin is the shining star of the same lab, regarded by his colleagues as “the Richard Feynman of chemistry.” Both are socially awkward loners without much interest in bonding with their colleagues — and yet when they meet, their chemistry is instant and undeniable.
Elizabeth comes across to most as prickly and stiff, but Larson brings to her an openness that only Calvin at first seems to recognize, and a dry humor that only Calvin at first seems to get. Pullman, for his part, has perfected the art of gazing upon his costar as if he’d never even dreamt such a person could exist.
Before long, the pair have settled into a blissful partnership: working together, living together, raising an adorable dog named Six Thirty together. (“After carbon and zinc, I assume?” Calvin asks of the choice of name.) Unfortunately for them, Lessons in Chemistry takes as one of its major themes the unpredictability of life. And so by the third episode, Elizabeth, who had rejected parenthood in favor of her career, finds herself jobless and single, with a new baby girl named Mad — so named because when Elizabeth was trying to come up with a name, the nurse suggested she just “go with what you feel right now.”
It’s around this point that the series, developed by Lee Eisenberg, shifts into something less predictable and more ambitious than the romantic drama it had appeared to be at first blush.
The story leaps several years ahead and broadens its scope as Elizabeth herself makes a hard pivot. With her career in science on hold, Elizabeth finds new purpose as the host of a cooking show where she applies her usual scientific rigor to everyday recipes — and in the process becomes an inspiration to a generation of women unused to having their labor or their ambitions taken seriously.
Around the same time, Mad (Alice Halsey), now a precious and precocious seven-year-old, sets out on a quest for answers about the father she never knew. Lessons in Chemistry increasingly jumps back and forth in time, tracing the paths that got this unorthodox family to where they are.
Along the way, it hits on seemingly every emotional note from whimsy to righteous anger to heart-rending sadness, and on themes as wide-ranging as faith, parenthood and social change. Some of its experiments work better than others.
The third episode introduces narration from Six Thirty (provided by BJ Novak), adding poignant new depths to his relationship with his human. What might have been moving on the page, however, plays on screen as a bizarre, out-of-left-field digression that risks tipping the entire tone of the show into A Dog’s Purpose-style sentimentality. It’s a relief when the voiceover disappears as abruptly as it appeared, and the otherwise lovable Six Thirty is allowed to fade gracefully into the background.
Elsewhere, Elizabeth’s best friend and neighbor, Harriet (Aja Naomi King), is embroiled in a subplot about her years-long campaign against a freeway extension that would decimate their predominantly Black area. The storyline is created entirely for the series, built around a figure who’s been totally reimagined from the book, and it shows. It’s an intriguing arc with a likable character who never gets the time and attention she needs to come into her fullest potential — perhaps because she’s only tenuously connected to a narrative that’s otherwise all about the chain reaction that is Elizabeth’s life.
The subplot’s true purpose seems to be to extend Lessons in Chemistry‘s feminism beyond the white women who comprise most of Elizabeth’s colleagues and fans. While a reasonable goal in theory, in practice the show’s politics are too simplistic to sustain any complicating factors.
Its world is one divided into good people who get it and bad people who don’t: overt racists and misogynists on the one hand — like the station owner (Rainn Wilson) complaining that Elizabeth isn’t “fuckable” enough or the politicians decrying the “blight” of a middle-class Black community — and the marginalized and their largely blameless allies on the other.
Only halfhearted attempts are made to grapple with the unconscious bias or internalized prejudice that might muddy such clear distinctions. To the extent that people like Elizabeth or Calvin are ever complicit in racism or sexism, it’s only because they’re so perfectly innocent that they barely seem to have noticed race or gender at all.
Then again, Lessons in Chemistry seems designed less as an unvarnished document of a bygone era than a wistful fantasy of what could have been — and Elizabeth not as a relatable protagonist but an aspirational heroine.
Shortly before she agrees to take on Supper at Six, her kindly producer (Kevin Sussman) spells out exactly what he sees in her: “You respect your audience, you don’t talk down to people, you meet them where they are, and you somehow raise them up.”
Lessons in Chemistry aims to do much the same, inviting us to take heart from a singular woman who never settles for less, who holds herself to the highest standard, who takes on the patriarchy with the same roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism she might apply to a particularly tricky roast. What comes out of the oven might not be haute cuisine. But comfort food has its satisfactions, too.