Lessons in Chemistry, Apple TV+’s adaptation of the Bonnie Garmus bestseller of the same name, stars Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott, a chemistry genius whose fulfilment of her potential has been thwarted at every turn by the entrenched sexism of her era, the late 1950s. After being effectively forced to leave college before completing her PhD, we meet her working as a lab assistant – and coffee-maker – for a team of scientists who are intellectually inferior but blessed with the Y chromosome.
There is but one man who can (almost) match her in brainpower – the institution’s star and moneymaker Dr Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman). Pullman has the same aura of everyman decency as his father, Bill – and that makes him perfect casting as Zott’s sole supporter and, eventually, beloved. Their tentative, tender courtship is a delight to watch, despite more than a few clunking lines (“To assume that [you were a secretary] was wrong and buffoonish”), and a tendency to deploy jarringly modern references (to establishing boundaries, for example, at work) to make sure we understand that this is a healthy relationship and Elizabeth is in no way compromising her innate feminism by yielding to him. Lessons in Chemistry treads as carefully as Zott does her experiments.
This, plus the removal of much of the book’s humour, gives the TV version a worthier feel than the book, without adding much to what was, in essence, a wish-fulfilment fantasy-cum-romcom. The only light relief comes from Zott’s inability to pick up social cues or abide by social conventions. And that is a joke that can get real wearisome, real fast. It’s also a hard sell for an actor and Larson does well to bear the burden as lightly as she does.
The series follows the book’s plot fairly closely, as Zott – who has always applied her scientific knowledge to her cookery in private – becomes a popular TV chef after a chance meeting with a TV executive while she is casting about for ways to support herself and her daughter, as the patriarchy continually refuse to acknowledge her real strengths. She is hired for her all-American air and apparent embodiment of all things domestic and feminine, then proceeds to subvert producers’ expectations while raising those of her female viewers. “Children, set the table,” she says at the end of every show, after demonstrating what changes can be made to unpromising ingredients with the right application of the right agents and forces. “Your mother needs a moment to herself.”