Review: 'Lessons in Chemistry' takes on the gender biases in the ‘50s with humour and warmth

Screen adaptation of The New York Times bestselling novel sets high expectations after a strong start

By Tamreez Inam

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Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in a scene from 'Lessons in Chemistry'
Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in a scene from 'Lessons in Chemistry'

Published: Tue 7 Nov 2023, 7:51 PM

Lessons in Chemistry, the much-hyped screen adaptation of The New York Times bestselling novel of the same name by Bonnie Garmu, came out last Friday on Apple TV+ with Brie Larson playing Elizabeth Zott.

Lessons in Chemistry was one of the best books I read last year, and the protagonist Elizabeth Zott is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever come across. The novel is funny, quirky, heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measures - a rare feat to pull off. So naturally, there were very high expectations from the TV series.

While there are departures from the book, as expected from any screenplay adaptation, for the most part it closely follows the main storyline. It does a brilliant job of bringing the book to life by recreating the era of the late 50s and early 60s. The casting is also perfect with Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, Aja Naomi King and Stephanie Koenig in major roles.

The show centres on Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant but socially awkward chemist battling gender discrimination at work in 1950s America. Due to a series of (un)fortunate events, she goes on to become a cooking show host on TV. Instead of bringing feminine appeal and housewifely charm, Elizabeth presents each recipe like a chemistry experiment, going against the advice of the show producers who seem to think they know what American housewives want. Unexpectedly her deadpan, no-nonsense style becomes a hit with audiences and she acquires celebrity status. She acknowledges the labour and love that goes into cooking and that sometimes things don’t go according to plan. “Children set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself,” is how she ends each show. It’s a statement that is endearing and empowering in its simplicity.

The overarching theme of the show is the prejudices of that period: the challenges, double standards and discriminatory workplace policies faced by women in pursuing their careers, especially when they had children.

As the show opens, before she becomes a cooking show host, Elizabeth is shown working in a lab advising and helping senior male colleagues who are less competent than herself. She has been unable to receive her PhD, despite completing all the work, due to a harrowing incident with her male supervisor. She is pressured by her boss to participate in the annual pageant organised at the lab for female employees, all of whom are secretaries, apart from Zott. The pageant includes evening wear, swimsuit and talent rounds, where Zott participates with a complete lack of enthusiasm in stark contrast to the other competitors. She is then chided for not showing team spirit. The pageant was not in the book and the addition to the show, though comical, goes to diminish the real struggles of the women of the time by presenting something so outrageously unrealistic.

The other focus of the first two episodes is Elizabeth’s relationship with Calvin Evans. Evans, charmingly played by Lewis Pullman, is the star chemist responsible for bringing in major funding to the lab but feels weighed down by expectations. It is heartwarming to watch the socially awkward Elizabeth and the eccentric Calvin fall in love with each other, especially as their relationship is unconventional. Both are strikingly good looking and intelligent, bordering on the genius, but what draws them to each other is their ability to live life on their own terms, being outspoken and, most importantly, their shared love of chemistry. In the book, we discover their difficult childhoods, and this is another factor that draws them to each other. I wonder if the later episodes will go further in exploring this aspect of their backstories.

One of my favourite characters from the book is Elizabeth’s dog, Six Thirty. In the book, he narrates his own chapters in a distinctive funny voice. However, we do not hear his narration in the series. While I felt the loss of Six Thirty’s voice in the show, I do appreciate that a talking dog may not have set the right tone for the series.

The other main difference, which I think is a welcome one, is the backstory of Harriet Sloane, played by Aja Naomi King. In the book she serves as a friend and confidante to Elizabeth and mainly supports her in managing the demands of being a new mother. In the show, while being a friend to Calvin and Elizabeth, she is a community activist who is battling racism in addition to the biases of her times. It will be interesting to see how Harriet’s story takes shape and how her relationship to Elizabeth pans out.

The first two episodes have started strong, and I will be excitedly looking forward to Friday evenings when subsequent episodes will be aired.

Lessons in Chemistry

Cast: Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, Stephanie Koenig

Stars: 4/5

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