Lessons in Chemistry is a surprising and delightful addition to both Apple TV+’s catalog and star Brie Larson’s resume. The limited series follows Elizabeth Zott, a would-be chemist in 1950s America, as she navigates the challenges that come with being a woman scientist in both her professional and personal lives. After losing her job at a lab, Elizabeth becomes a television star who sets out to inspire women across America.
Lee Eisenberg adapts the original novel beautifully, although I can’t speak to the series’ accuracy as I haven’t read it (yet). From the chemistry labs to the pastel TV set, the production quality here is off the charts. Combine that with great writing and exceptional performances from every actor down to the children, and Lessons in Chemistry has all the trappings of a breakout hit.
[Warning: light spoilers and impressions for Lessons in Chemistry are below!]
Perfectly prepared aspects of Lessons in Chemistry
Lessons in Chemistry has a unique flavor thanks to its scientific bent, one that’s refreshing to see. These science-based moments transform normal television occurrences into something special, such as when Elizabeth creates an at-home pregnancy test with the aid of frogs.
Brie Larson executive produces here in addition to starring in the main role, excelling at both. She isn’t someone who immediately comes to mind for this type of role (as in, a 1950s lab technician turned television star). However, audiences are used to Larson breaking the glass ceiling already thanks to her MCU role as Captain Marvel. She certainly brings the same fiery intensity to this role, albeit with a much more emotional and well-rounded performance.
Larson plays every aspect of Elizabeth well, from her frustration and anger to her love and happiness. She particularly stands out during the powerful moments on her TV show when she stands up to producers and empowers housewives who want more from life. In these moments, Larson glows with a fiery energy that reaches through the screen to inspire you to chase your own dreams.
Aja Naomi King is given similar moments, speaking harsh truths with razor-sharp delivery to judges and friends alike. While it’s hard to see what role she’ll play in the first few episodes, King’s Harriet Sloane blossoms into a beautifully complex supporting character whose friendship with Elizabeth is a standout.
In fact, Elizabeth’s relationships with other women are a constant source of surprise and joy. Stephanie Koenig plays Fran Frask, a receptionist at the laboratory where Elizabeth works who is constantly at odds with her. Despite the frustration and anxiety, Fran adds to Elizabeth’s life, her evolution throughout the series was genuinely unexpected and refreshing to see. The same goes for Elizabeth’s genius daughter Madeline, played by Alice Halsey, who’s easily one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen. Their relationship isn’t what you would expect of a typical mother and child but makes perfect sense for their personalities.
Another standout relationship in Lessons in Chemistry is, of course, Elizabeth’s partnership with Calvin Evans, played by Lewis Pullman. A chemistry star, Calvin is constantly under pressure to innovate and secure further funding for the lab but feels entirely misunderstood by his fellow scientists. He finds a kindred spirit in Elizabeth, and the way their relationship changes both of them is beautiful to watch. The perfect chemistry between the actors helps, too!
Underbaked ideas in this Apple TV series
Of course, no show is perfect, and unfortunately, Lessons in Chemistry stumbles towards the end. Despite Apple TV+’s synopsis focusing on Elizabeth’s transformation from chemist to television star, the series felt far less focused on this journey. While her television scenes are absolutely a highlight of the show and interesting to watch, the entire concept of chemist-turned-cooking show host isn’t given enough time to adequately play out. It feels more like Elizabeth was a chemist and is now a cooking show star, like they are two separate occupations rather than two steps in the same journey, until the very end of the series.
The series does skip around in time, which causes some of these issues. By jumping forward seven years halfway through the series, the audience feels like they have missed out on important developments in Elizabeth’s life. For example, there’s an entire storyline devoted to a singular goal Elizabeth is focused on, one that has been heavily set up by previous episodes. However, Lessons in Chemistry skips ahead before this storyline is resolved and never mentions it again, which is rather confusing.
Similarly, the final episode introduces several twists that revolutionize ongoing storylines without taking the time to really fit them into what came before. During the second half of the finale, I had a feeling that’s quite common with some Disney+ series. Namely, “How will these storylines possibly be resolved in only 20 minutes?” The answer, which unfortunately seems to be becoming more common these days, is “they won’t”.
While I loved the first six episodes, the cracks started to show in the final two. A few developments in these final episodes felt out of place, as if they had been dropped into this carefully crafted drama from a gimmicky soap opera.
Important themes in Lessons in Chemistry
Lessons in Chemistry touches on many important themes that were revolutionary in 1950s America and are still entirely relevant today. Elizabeth faces intense sexism in the workplace from every corner, from men and women alike. Several episodes touch on traumatic events in Elizabeth’s life, from sexual assault to parental abuse and the untimely death of her brother. These depictions are accompanied by content warnings from Apple but, in my opinion, are delicately handled. While the trauma of these events is not glossed over and they are intensely uncomfortable to watch, they are portrayed simply and effectively – particularly when it comes to Elizabeth’s sexual assault.
Race relations become a major part of the series as well, as the time period it’s set in approaches the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The ways in which Black citizens are supported by their White neighbors becomes an important conversation between Harriet and both Calvin and Elizabeth as their respective influences grow. These conversations are more relevant than ever even 70 years later, and Harriet’s unflinching attitude towards her friends and Elizabeth’s subsequent actions are important to witness.
Final thoughts on Lessons in Chemistry
Overall, Lessons in Chemistry is a great series that certainly has something of value to say. While it’s slightly undercut by the messy final episodes and muddled messaging they introduce, the series still stands tall. The highest compliment I can give it is that I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode, every time. The cliffhangers in the first few directed by Sarah Adina Smith are particularly good. It may even be the best I’ve seen in a while!
I’d highly recommend giving Lessons in Chemistry a look if you’re looking for something to watch with your family this fall season. I’m excited to read the book and see if it fills in some of the gaps missing in the series!
Lessons in Chemistry arrives on Apple TV on October 13. Will you be checking it out? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.