I usually take a lot of notes when I’m watching television as a critic. I produce pages and pages of handwritten notes, full of important character moments, key quotations, and stray thoughts I have that could evolve into an essay idea. It’s an academic approach to my work that I think Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), the heroine of Apple TV+‘s new series Lessons in Chemistry, would appreciate. The irony is I was so swept away by Elizabeth’s story — her fight for respect as a scientist, her swoon-worthy love story with Lewis Pullman‘s Calvin Evans, her lust-worthy 1950s costumes — that I didn’t take too many notes while watching all eight episodes of Lessons in Chemistry. Instead, I was simply so enchanted by this exquisitely executed series that I just enjoyed the experience.
Lessons in Chemistry is one of those rare book-to-TV adaptations that nails what made its source material so explosively popular. Featuring incredible star turns from Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, and Aja Naomi King, it’s a testament to how great characters can distract you from hokey plots. Lessons is a triumph for Larson, in particular, who as star and executive producer, finds the perfect character for her unique talents and divisive personal brand.
Lessons in Chemistry is based on the best-selling novel by Bonnie Garmus of the same name. As in the show, the book follows the journey of chemist Elizabeth Zott as she handles misogyny, love, loss, single motherhood, and surprise stardom as a cooking show host in the mid-20th century. We first meet Elizabeth as a brilliant lab tech in the early 1950s whose talents are sidelined by the sexism of the time. When fate pulls her into the path of the equally idiosyncratic and genius Calvin Evans, she not only finds a professional partner who takes her seriously, but a romantic partner who cherishes everything about her, from her direct manner to love of using chemistry in the kitchen. Eventually, it is Elizabeth’s culinary skills and unique personality that offer her the opportunity to host a TV show where she teaches housewives to rethink their own roles.
In Elizabeth Zott, Brie Larson has found a role of a lifetime. Elizabeth is not a warm woman, but she is a loyal and a passionate one. She is not a cruel woman, but she refuses to indulge the feelings of others by smiling for no reason or playing along with smalltalk. In many ways, it feels like Larson has channeled years of criticism hurled her way — for being an unsmiling feminist, mostly — into this role. But Larson goes deeper than that with Elizabeth Zott. By fully owning Elizabeth’s sharp corners, Larson is able to also delve into the trauma, loneliness, and frustrating haunting her.
Lewis Pullman is a similar supernova as Elizabeth’s one true love, Calvin Evans. Unlike the novel, the show expands Calvin’s role to make their romance the emotional nucleus of everything else that unfolds. Pullman was a scene-stealer as “Bob” in Top Gun: Maverick, but in Lessons in Chemistry he proves his mettle as a potential movie star, not only holding his own against the Oscar-winning, MCU member Larson, but making her better. It will be interesting to see how fans of Garmus’s books take to Calvin’s larger presence in the adaptation, but I found it hard to hate each and every additional scene crafted for the excellent Pullman.
But the biggest change from page to screen is how show drastically transforms friend and neighbor Harriet from an unhappily married older white woman to a gutsy Black lawyer fighting racism. Harriet, here, is happily married and rules over a picture perfect American family, complete with two precocious kids. Her friendships with Calvin and Elizabeth are in earnest, but she has bigger problems than figuring out where funding for research will come from. Harriet is fighting for the survival of her family’s neighborhood, which has been earmarked by the racist powers that be to be bulldozed for a freeway. It’s a clever way to show the audience the limits of Elizabeth’s ambitions as a public figure, while also dramatizing the historic destruction of countless communities in the name of infrastructure. (Read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker for more fuel for your fury.)
Of course, whether or not these changes work for book fans will probably come down to what readers loved — or loathed — about the novel in the first place. Lessons in Chemistry detractors typically focus in on Elizabeth often falling into “not like the other girls” trope. Meaning, the character feels a superiority to other women because she’s smarter and less superficial. Apple TV+’s version seems aware of these concerns based on some changes to the narrative later in the season that force Elizabeth to confront her own values. Other issues folks could have with the book? Well, it’s got quite the cute and tidy little ending…which is held up in the Apple TV+ show.
Overall, though, I was obsessed with the world and characters created by Lessons in Chemistry. The last time a limited series had a similar effect on me? Another mid-century period piece about an equally unconventional and brilliant heroine: The Queen’s Gambit. As with that series, we have tragic backstories, orphanage plots, and a chic feminist fighting her own demons alongside the patriarchy. Netflix’s launchpad for Anya-Taylor Joy might edge out Lessons in Chemistry in sheer artistry, but Apple TV+’s limited series feels like first real successor show to The Queen’s Gambit in more ways than one.
Lessons in Chemistry is an addictive ride full of incredible performances, inspiring characters, and one of the best TV romances in some time. It could also be Apple TV+’s first drama to hit the zeitgeist with a Ted Lasso-level force. It’s honestly that good.
Lessons in Chemistry premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, October 13.
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