Sparks fly on Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry, a winning drama about one woman’s quest to bring science and empowerment to the kitchen.
Based on Bonnie Garmus’ bestseller, Lessons in Chemistry follows Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), a talented but under-appreciated scientist. The series opens in 1961 as Elizabeth prepares to host Supper at Six, a successful show where she empowers women through everyday science — cooking.
How she comes to host Supper at Six lies beyond the two-episode premiere, as the story truly begins seven years earlier. Elizabeth works at Hastings, a Southern California research facility awash in earthy tones, perky secretaries, and misogynistic scientists. Elizabeth is a lab technician who can’t use equipment without permission while her colleagues bark their coffee orders at her. She challenges her supervisors, refuses to participate in the company beauty pageant, and perfects her recipes at home, alone.
“Chemistry” has two meanings
And then there’s Calvin (Lewis Pullman), Hastings’ boy wonder. He’s got a PhD in chemistry, his own private laboratory, and access to extra lab equipment that Elizabeth needs.
Elizabeth’s experiments bring her into Calvin’s orbit, and the pair team up on an abiogenesis research project. Elizabeth needs her findings published to gain credibility; Calvin needs to secure funding for another grant. It’s a beneficial partnership that — again, look at the title — blooms into one of the sweetest romances of the year. Their flirtation is laden with literal interpretations of one another’s words, and bonding over enthusiastic diatribes about chemical equations. (I’m sure there’s a “bonding” joke to be made about atoms, but this critic has a degree in creative writing, not chemistry.)
Larson and Pullman, like their characters, shine on their own but are at the top of their game when together. Larson is steely, but the first two episodes show cracks in Elizabeth’s no-nonsense façade. When she is proud and at ease, you feel it; when she’s scared or impassioned, you feel as though Larson will crawl out of the screen and dare you to ask her to make coffee one more time. Pullman, a standout in Top Gun: Maverick and Outer Range, is Larson’s equal and opposite (again, there’s a science joke here somewhere). He matches her enthusiasm, yet is subdued and wide-eyed. By the end of the second episode, you feel you’ve walked in on something when the two are onscreen alone — you want to leave them to their experiments and gentle affection, yet you can’t look away.
A show about science, artfully done
Lessons in Chemistry is rich in sleek production design and lovely costuming. It has the elevated feel of a serious midcentury drama yet feels lived-in; the dresses look carefully tailored but attainable. Music is used skillfully here; Elizabeth and Calvin’s opposing tastes make for a charming montage. Carlos Rafael Rivera’s score here, like his work on The Queen’s Gambit, is beautiful and impressive without overpowering what’s onscreen. Elizabeth’s cooking is beautifully presented. Her “imperfect” lasagna, which wins Calvin over, is online for fans to recreate themselves.
A compelling case for page-to-screen changes
Where Lessons in Chemistry experiments with its source material at first appears in the little details. The Little Miss Hastings is invented for the show, as is Calvin’s insistence on teaching Elizabeth how to swim. Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty, is on the scene before her romance with Calvin begins. These are minute details that, at best, expand the setting; at worst, anyone who loved the origin of Six-Thirty’s name will be underwhelmed.
The series’ biggest difference, however, is its revised version of Elizabeth’s neighbor, Harriet Sloane. In the novel, she’s a neglected housewife in her mid-fifties. Here, she’s Calvin’s neighbor, a Black lawyer protesting urban development that threatens her neighborhood. Giving Harriet motivation outside of where she exists in the novel provides intriguing implications for the direction of the story. The novel focuses on Elizabeth’s cultural impact as a woman on television, but Harriet’s involvement in the series can only mean for a more inclusive study of intersectional feminism in 1961. Aja Naomi King portrays Harriet with grace and fervor; she’s a highlight in her few but impactful scenes.
Episode 2, “Her & Him,” ends on a note that leaves one wishing Apple TV+ was the kind of platform that dropped series all at once, but much like Supper at Six, this is a show that airs weekly. Readers, your writer needs a moment to herself.
Lessons in Chemistry’s first two episodes are streaming now on AppleTV+. New episodes drop on Fridays through November 24.
Featured image courtesy of Apple TV+
'Lessons in Chemistry' series premiere - 9/10