Lessons in Chemistry Review: Superb Cast and Characters Lead Apple’s New Series

Despite its narrow focus, Apple's new series is a strong take on female empowerment.

Academy Award winning actress Brie Larson (Room) stars in the latest Apple TV+ miniseries, Lessons in Chemistry, an absorbing adaptation of the best-selling novel by Bonnie Garmus. Developed by Lee Eisenberg (The Office), the 8-episode series is the latest to harken back to the mid-twentieth century in order to re-examine a problematic era through a modern lens. Expect echoes of Peggy Olson’s struggles in Mad Men and Midge’s woes in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Larson plays the quintessential idiosyncratic chemist Elizabeth Zott (think Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory in female form) who is forced out of her job at a science lab in the 1950s. Although she is an eccentric, even in that repressive context, she meets a kindred spirit in the form of Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), the brilliant star of the lab and a being just as damaged as she is.

Elizabeth becomes a reluctant but defiant feminist despite herself, landing a job as a cooking show host. Ruled by logic to a heightened degree, she is a stubborn personality who immediately butts heads with her network boss (Rainn Wilson) over how to appeal to her audience. Unlike the previous series mentioned above, Lessons in Chemistry traces the development of a personality who is emotionally unavailable and removed from the world. To its credit, this series still presents a surprisingly strong take on female empowerment.

As is the case with the source material, Lessons in Chemistry straddles the boundaries between absurdity and realism but here the results are more mixed. The series leans heavily on the dramatic moments and can get predictable in its more poignant ones. Sometimes the transitions in mood are awkward, but it moves along at such a brisk pace that these instances become mostly forgivable in the grand scheme of the character’s trajectory.

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The show is rich with secondary characters who are the true flesh-and-blood personalities, especially since they are more emotionally open. Having these characters orbit around the central couple helps to humanize them, especially Elizabeth. The family that lives across the street from Calvin, the Sloanes (led by mother Harriet, played by Aja Naomi King), are particularly critical – and appealing – in this regard. Not only do they function in the world that exists outside of chemistry and its experiments, but even as highly educated, refreshingly sensitive, and more mature individuals.

While Elizabeth exists in an intellectual bubble, the Slones function in a more diverse world, one of social connections. More interestingly, they are connected to the societal realities of the time. Harriet becomes a vital force in both Calvin and Elizabeth’s lives, as well as in the greater scheme of life as a Black person in this era. For these reasons, she’s one of the more fascinating characters and you can’t help but wish that she was more than a subordinate presence. In many ways, it’s easier to understand why Elizabeth is drawn to her than vice versa. As a result, the meshing of the storylines doesn’t always gel.

Like Mad Men and Mrs. Maisel, the female protagonist here progresses towards self-actualization in the larger social context of the civil rights struggle. Unfortunately, although it presents some promise of greater insight into the struggles of Black Americans, this show similarly disappoints in the way that it eventually snaps back into its narrow focus on the personal life of its lead.

The strength of Lessons in Chemistry is its characters, all oddballs in their own ways. The cast is superb even when the storylines let them down. There are some bumps along the way mainly with directorial choices, especially when a certain episode comes from an unusual point of view that is not very successful or actually necessary. This type of perspective is a tough sell in the context of a multi-episode series, let alone in the world of moving images.

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Lessons in Chemistry aptly comments on its chosen era of the 1950’s-60’s while still maintaining a currency for the present. This is a huge plus for the viewer, but anyone wanting to relive Peggy’s rallying Mad Men arc or Mrs. Maisel’s fabulousness, especially with regard to the styles and fashions of that era, need to remember that this miniseries is presenting the story of a chemist who, no matter how creative she gets, will only give you Lessons in Chemistry.

The first two episodes of Lessons in Chemistry are now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+, with new episodes premiering every Friday.



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