‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Is Too Exasperating, Even for Comfort Food
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Tv ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Is Too Exasperating, Even for Comfort Food

‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Is Too Exasperating, Even for Comfort Food



‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Is Too Exasperating, Even for Comfort Food

“Surprise.”

Rather than being shouted, as people do at birthday parties, Calvin (Lewis Pullman) barely whispers the word. Instead of an excited declaration, it’s the answer to a question: What’s the most important variable to consider when trying to comprehend the origins of the universe? Calvin, having just been caught off guard by an unexpected bit of news, wonders aloud to his partner, Elizabeth (Brie Larson), if all their lab work, all their equations, all their attempts to “explain our past and predict our future,” comes down to one particularly fickle factor. “What if life is necessarily unpredictable, maybe even the very thing that makes it possible in the first place?” the star chemist and frontrunner for the Nobel Prize wonders aloud. What if, just like all the actual elements, the element of surprise is knit into the fabric of existence itself?

I know, I know — it’s a BIG idea… or maybe not? I’m not a chemist, so I won’t pretend to know what qualifies as a revelatory scientific thought, especially 70 years ago (when Calvin first shares his hypothesis). But I do know whenever a character on TV starts talking about life’s inevitable volatility, it usually indicates a writer is justifying a plot twist they otherwise couldn’t — and something wild is about to go down. “Lessons in Chemistry” too often telegraphs its “surprises,” or clumsily substantiates them, in ways that reduce any intended impact to eye-rolls. Yes, anything can happen in life, but stories are typically stronger when those unforeseeable twists and turns are rooted in purpose. So when Apple’s eight-episode adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’ best-selling novel can only ground its many disparate elements in the all-too-relatable belief that shit happens, well, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the glaring vacuity.

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That’s not to say Lee Eisenberg’s limited series lack good intentions — or even good parts. It just struggles to fit its saccharine love story alongside a ’50s feminist fantasy, a porous character study, and a peripheral civil rights C-plot. Things are awry straight from the jump, when the premiere episode starts in streaming’s preferred style: the dreaded “in media res” opening. Elizabeth Zott arrives at her Los Angeles-area TV station, where a herd of fans are waiting for her. She walks briskly through the screaming but respectful throngs (this is the ’50s, after all, when admirers still had manners), and she answers question after question on her way to the set. (Roma tomatoes, please. Non-iodized salt, of course.) The extended oner (directed by Sarah Adina Smith) takes us all the way through to her show’s intro — “Welcome viewers,” Elizabeth says. “This is ‘Supper at Six’” — and gives Larson the star turn a Marvel hero demands.

But the episode’s chosen beginning, in both its style and placement, also has the bewildering side effect of building anticipation to see Zott as a TV star. Not only does it take four episodes (or half the series) to find out how she gets there, the explanation is ludicrous and hosting a cooking show isn’t even the culmination of her arc. The Elizabeth we meet after the opening credits is seven years younger and working as a lowly lab technician. She desperately wants to be a lead chemist, publishing her own work, but sexism has stopped her at every turn. First, it prevented her from completing her PhD (events depicted with brusque savagery in Episode 2), and now it’s keeping her from rising in the ranks, despite her obvious intelligence. In between making coffee for her boss, Elizabeth helps her fellow scientists correct their proofs and improve their theories. She’s clearly the smartest person at Hastings Laboratory, and yet she has to conduct her own work in secret, after hours.

Lessons in Chemistry Calvin actor Lewis Pullman Brie Larson Elizabeth
Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in “Lessons in Chemistry”Courtesy of Michael Becker / Apple TV+

During these off-the-clock endeavors, she runs into Calvin, the envy of every scientist at work and an eccentric introvert at home. Treated as a “star” by Hastings’ bureaucrats, Calvin is given plenty of leeway, privacy, and funding. His next grant proposal is expected to keep the lab’s lights on, and his boss (Derek Cecil) makes it clear that’s the only reason Calvin gets away with blown deadlines, a defiant attitude, and his general lack of social skills.

Elizabeth can’t afford to be late or all that unruly — not as a single, working woman — but her own prioritization of good work over frivolous socializing provides an early bond between the two. Soon, they’re sharing lunch (he barely eats, she loves to cook), sharing a lab (he loves jazz, she loves structure), and sharing a love for one another. “Lessons in Chemistry” does a fine job engineering its central romance, with Lewis Pullman (son of Bill) and Larson providing the super-nerdy sizzle necessary for a title promising “chemistry.” Both are underdogs, loners, and impossibly attractive for workaholic science geeks, which makes for an innately cute pair. Even when said cuteness verges on sappy, their actors’ candor steers them back to sweet safety.

The same cannot be said for the show surrounding them, despite its handsome cinematography, costumes, and props. (Who’s ready to stack their colorful Le Creuset kitchenware next to sparkling glass beakers and vials?) What starts as an against-the-odds love story pivots too many times and in too many directions. Questions loom about Elizabeth and Lewis’ respective childhoods. There’s a neighbor, Harriet (Aja Naomi King), who’s trying to stop the city from running a freeway through their (predominantly Black) neighborhood. Time jumps and guest stars steal attention, as well, though never long enough to flesh out whatever person, plot, or idea they represent. Too much outside of Elizabeth feels awkwardly forced in, but the most egregious (and unrecoverable) mistake happens early: After an episode bookended by incredible violence, the next hour is narrated by Elizabeth’s… dog.

Such an extreme shift leaves the entire series unstable, making it impossible to recover the dignity and import “Lessons in Chemistry” strives to convey. The series stacks the odds against its star in order to elicit “you go girl cheers” as she defies men’s authoritarian rule and succeeds in spite of the era’s naked discrimination. (“Ms. Zott, you are just not smart enough,” her boss says, bluntly, before adding, “A smile once in a while wouldn’t kill you.”) But her rise is muddled by its heavy-handed execution. (Even comfort food needs the right seasoning to go down smooth.) When combined with the continuous, convoluted twists, “Lessons in Chemistry” just doesn’t add up — as a female empowerment story, as a love story, as any story.

Perhaps that’s why the show’s predominant theme doesn’t actually come from Elizabeth; it belongs to Calvin. He’s the one who pitches the idea that all their scientific study, all their life’s work, all their time together is made possible by the element of surprise. She just learns to live with it.

Grade: C-

“Lessons in Chemistry” premieres Friday, October 13 on Apple TV+ with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly.

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