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Despite Its Simplicity, There's Plenty to Savor in Brie Larson's Lessons in Chemistry

Larson and Lewis Pullman bring 1950s romance to the screen in Apple's enjoyable, if reductive, limited series.
  • Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry (Photo: Apple TV+)

    For a show concerned with the complex molecular reactions that make up everyday life, Lessons in Chemistry is remarkably simplistic. What you see is what you get with Lee Eisenberg's take on Bonnie Garmus' bestselling novel: Across eight episodes, the Apple TV+ limited series emphasizes (and then re-emphasizes) its progressive themes, establishing a world in which its protagonist, the immensely talented but underappreciated chemist Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), exists in opposition to the powerful misogynists, racists, and abusers of 1950s America.

    That feminist message guides the show, which hews closely to the book, through its various timelines and narrative developments. From the moment Elizabeth is introduced, she's held up as an example of righteousness in an unjust world. She ignores the snide comments from men at Hastings Research Lab and pursues her groundbreaking research in secret, as her bosses refuse to let her do anything beyond make coffee (naturally, she brews her own in beakers) and clean up after the "real" scientists. A flashback reveals Elizabeth ended up as a lab tech after she was forced to choose between apologizing for stabbing a professor as he sexually assaulted her, or discontinuing her doctoral studies; while Elizabeth opted for the latter and left with dignity, the traumatic experience still haunts her.

    When she meets Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), a celebrated scientist who keeps to himself at the lab, Elizabeth believes she's met her match. For the first time in her life, someone sees Elizabeth as an equal partner — in both a professional and romantic sense — even if Calvin is so naive that he fails to realize why other men downplay her gifts. "Sex discrimination," she explains. "Well, also politics and favoritism and general unfairness. But yes, mostly sex discrimination."

    Due to unforeseen circumstances that bring Episode 2, "Her and Him," to a screeching halt, Elizabeth and Calvin's bliss is short-lived, but their relationship gives the show a strong romantic center. Early episodes foster the sense that these two are more than just lovers or research partners — they're soulmates in every sense of the word, the only people who understand each other in a world that purports to care about scientific principles like objectivity and openness, but never lives up to those standards.

    The rest of the season hinges on the believability and emotional pull of Elizabeth and Calvin's connection, and Larson and Pullman rise to the occasion: The actors nail the more nuanced beats of these misunderstood characters, looking beyond their social awkwardness to unearth a nerdy, dry humor that bonds them. Whether they're exchanging Christmas gifts over a candlelit dinner in the Hastings cafeteria or discussing organic compounds in bed, their chemistry is palpable, though it certainly helps that Pullman spends much of his screen time looking at his co-star as if the sun rises and sets on her.

    But for all the charm of Elizabeth and Calvin's romance, Lessons in Chemistry really takes off when the show jumps ahead seven years and Elizabeth finds herself navigating motherhood alone. With no source of regular income and a precocious daughter to care for, Mad — a name that comes courtesy of the nurse who tells Elizabeth to "just go with what you feel right now" — Elizabeth takes a job hosting a local cooking show. The gig is uniquely suited to her skill set and sensibility, as it allows her to combine her passion for science (what is cooking if not chemistry?) and her frustration with patriarchal expectations into an hour-long program that seeks to empower the overlooked women of Los Angeles. Supper at Six is an instant hit, but overcoming centuries of misogyny is easier said than done. Every victory Elizabeth notches (wearing pants and glasses; refusing to plug the show's new sponsor, a vegetable shortening company) comes with a tongue-lashing from station owner Phil Lebensmal (Rainn Wilson), who demands his new host be a "maternal, but f*ckable" on-air presence.

    While Larson is at her best when Elizabeth is on offense, wielding her quick wit and unapproachability as weapons, these moments are also among the show's least subtle. Wilson's character is practically a cartoon villain, as are the spineless men at Hastings who steal Elizabeth's research and pass it off as their own without a second thought. And if those characterizations weren't clear enough, the dialogue has a tendency to spell things out even further, as when Elizabeth, after having acquiesced to one of Phil's orders under duress, proclaims, "The lesser of two evils is still evil."

    Lessons in Chemistry's progressive values extend outward to Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King), a neighbor who becomes Elizabeth's closest friend. In the most significant deviation from the book, Eisenberg expands Harriet's role considerably, giving her a new job as an attorney (rather than a housewife) and a season-long arc about her effort to prevent a freeway from being built through their predominantly Black neighborhood. While King makes a meal out of Harriet's storyline, which takes steps to rectify the overwhelming whiteness of the novel, her character's campaign against bigoted developers who have baselessly deemed the neighborhood "blighted" is always secondary to the drama in Elizabeth's life. Later in the season, the show acknowledges that the women are not fighting battles of equal significance — combatting structural racism and a gross boss at a local TV station are, of course, not the same — but it declines to fully commit to this idea, as if doing so would remind viewers that Elizabeth is not the fearless crusader for truth and justice the show holds her up to be.

    There's no denying that Lessons in Chemistry means well — and though its political messaging often lacks nuance, the show around it remains an uplifting look at a woman who refuses to be defined by the social mores and conservative attitude of the era. Still, while Larson ensures there's plenty to savor here, it's difficult to shake the feeling that Apple's limited series is afraid to get past that first layer and dig into something a bit more complicated underneath.

    Lessons in Chemistry premieres Friday, October 13 on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Lessons in Chemistry, Apple TV+, Aja Naomi King, Brie Larson, Lee Eisenberg, Lewis Pullman, Rainn Wilson