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Hear Me Out

Lessons in Chemistry Proves B.J. Novak Was Born to Play a Dog

The unexpected narrative twist in Episode 3 is also the biggest homage to the source material on which the show is based.
  • Six-Thirty the dog, voiced by B.J. Novak in Lessons in Chemistry (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Six-Thirty the dog, voiced by B.J. Novak in Lessons in Chemistry (Photo: Apple TV+)

    In Hear Me Out, Primetimer staffers and contributors espouse their pet theories, hot takes, and even the occasional galaxy-brain idea.

    B.J. Novak has tackled many roles over his career. The Temp turned criminal on The Office. One of the surviving “Basterds” in Inglourious Basterds. A children’s author. Mindy Kaling’s BFF (not to mention the oft-rumored father to her children). As it turns out, his crowning achievement is quite possibly voicing the dog, Six-Thirty, on Lessons in Chemistry.

    When the Apple TV+ show’s third episode opens immediately following the shocking death of Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), it does so from the perspective of Six-Thirty, the stray labradoodle Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) took in. Of the limited series’ eight installments, this chapter also happens to be the most poignant.

    That’s largely due to Novak and the way he brings Six-Thirty’s personality to life. His soft tone and unwavering delivery add an innocent quality of acceptance to the dog in his current state, as he mourns his owner. Six-Thirty feels responsible for Calvin’s death and has lost all sense of purpose as a result. Novak’s depiction of that as he narrates scenes of the episode adds much-needed emotional depth.

    Some may not love the sudden narrative switch, which pulls viewers out of the previously established world. However given the sudden dark turn, the fantastical element comes at just the right time. Elizabeth and Calvin’s entire relationship unfolded over two short episodes, which means viewers didn’t get much time to fall in love with them as a couple. Most people love dogs though, and the bond between Six-Thirty, Elizabeth, and Calvin heightens the viewing experience in Episode 3 — in particular because it highlights the best qualities a dog can possess: loyalty, unconditional love, empathy, and companionship.

    As Elizabeth mourns in silence and copes with her surprise pregnancy in anger, Six-Thirty has opposing reactions. It’s through Six-Thirty that we see how Elizabeth’s grief enables his self-blame and feelings of failure. Conversely, when she learns that she is pregnant, Six-Thirty feels a newfound sense of purpose that allows him to carry on. That internal dialogue layers and juxtaposes Elizabeth’s external actions, enabling the show to establish how grief is more than just one thing.

    By the time it all comes together in the closing scene, where Six-Thirty helps Elizabeth put one foot in front of the other to hopefully return “home,” the episode feels like a complete chapter. It isn’t all told through Six-Thirty’s perspective, but by adding it, the show tackles all seven stages of grief in a subtle and non-linear way — much like a person would experience them in real life.

    Readers of Bonnie Garmus’ 2022 novel on which the show is based were probably hoping for Six-Thirty’s narration. There are multiple chapters in the book told from the pooch’s point-of-view, adding context to Elizabeth through the vantage point of someone who loves her unconditionally. Six-Thirty genuinely worries about his owner, her pregnancy, and how she is coping with Calvin’s death. But he also holds himself responsible and that responsibility comes full-circle by the book’s end (no spoilers for non-readers).

    It’s also important to note that the book is told through several characters’ viewpoints. That choice allowed Garmus to present major themes like misogyny or family and then delve into them with nuanced internal reflections from characters who hold different convictions and beliefs. Those multi-faceted characters result in more gray matter to explore in the novel.

    In adapting the book for the small screen, creator Lee Eisenberg made many changes from the source material, including the decision not to follow individual POVs. Unfortunately, that means many of those nuances have been lost. Often, the show feels like it’s trying to tackle too much without saying anything of substance, and it’s hard in those early episodes to decipher what this show is actually about. Introducing Six-Thirty’s perspective changes that in Episode 3, when the show finally takes a risk and explores one major topic in depth.

    Of all the changes from book to screen, failing to include Six-Thirty as a major character may have been a sticking point — the dog does have a rabid online fanbase and an Instagram account, after all. Not only was his addition an original twist in the book (because how often do human emotions come to life in non-animated pets?) but the dog became more prominent following Calvin’s death and served as his stand-in when it came to keeping the family together. Even if Lessons in Chemistry chooses not to include Six-Thirty’s narration in the remaining five episodes, he has now been established as an important character whose motivations are understood.

    It’s not simply a tonal shift for everyone, especially since it comes out of nowhere and will inevitably draw comparisons to A Dog’s Purpose. For non-readers, the standalone episode without context may feel shaky at best, and even Garmus has expressed nervousness over how it will play with audiences.

    Those who were hoping that some of the book’s magic would translate on screen, however, may be pleasantly surprised by Novak and his earnest take. The actor brings Garmus one step closer in her quest to prove that dogs really do think, and he also reminds us that sometimes the best characters are the ones you don’t see coming — the underdogs, if you will.

    New episodes of Lessons in Chemistry drop Fridays on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Amber Dowling is a Toronto-based freelancer, CCA member and former TCA president. Her work has appeared in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Metacritic, The Globe and Mail, Playback and more. Follow her on Instagram: @amber__dowling.

    TOPICS: B.J. Novak, Apple TV+, Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus, Brie Larson