Especially if we are women.
It’s no surprise to anyone that women were not exactly treated with respect in the mid-20th century workplace. We’ve all seen Mad Men, or we’ve (hopefully) listened to our mothers and grandmothers. In this respect, Lessons in Chemistry, the new Apple TV+ limited series based on an international bestseller by Bonnie Garmus and starring Brie Larson, won’t be much of an eye-opener. Nevertheless, its warmth and the approach with which it treats human hardship – and its exquisite performances – impress throughout its eight-episode run.
Created by television veteran Lee Eisenberg (American The Office, WeCrashed), Lessons in Chemistry is a long overdue comeback for Academy Award-winning Larson as a performing powerhouse and a gorgeous period piece about a genius chemist turned TV cooking show host. Its many insistences on the cruelty of patriarchy toward women seeking to emancipate while underscoring the ongoing struggles that are making full liberation impossible to this day. Uneven and overly simplistic at times, this is still no simple crowd-pleaser. If anything, what impressed me most about the show is its honest approach to trauma, and our lack of an adequate response to the many curveballs life throws us.
Sometime in the 1950s, a brilliant, socially unvarnished chemist, Elizabeth Zott, is pushed out of her PhD program and forced to make her own way as a lowly lab technician. Scampering around the offices and corridors of the fictional Hastings Research Institute in Southern California, she faces casual daily condescension, shunning, and outright abuse just for being female. Elizabeth is smarter than everyone at Hastings, but her knowledge and impeccable work ethic are worth little in a setting where sycophantic, aggressive mediocrity rules.
Despite a dire routine, Zott will not be subjugated. She committedly works on her pioneering research – and her cooking, a personal passion – while attempting to get published and break out. Awkwardly observant and honest to a fault, she keeps risking her modest career prospects by confronting her overconfident and undercapable coworkers. Soon, however, she meets her match in the form of a Nobel-prize nominee, Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), an equally maladapted genius with a big heart. The two hit it off both in and out of the office, and for a moment, we believe that nothing will stop their groundbreaking work or love.
Like any other, this moment is fleeting, and less than two episodes in, we’re thrown into the vortex that is the life of Elizabeth Zott and her family. A heavily twist-driven plot prevents me from discussing the many specifics that round Elizabeth’s story up, but the array of adversity she faces is broad and diverse. The non-linear story arcs, at times brilliant, at times clumsily squeezed in, quickly reveal Zott, the genius pioneer chemist, establishing a career not as an award-winning scientist but as a cooking show TV host.
All this is just the tip of the iceberg of Zott’s poignant story, which Larson delivers with intensity and empathy seldom seen on television. Her triumphant performance makes the heroine utterly sympathetic and thoroughly relatable despite Zott’s many idiosyncrasies and off-kilter behaviors. Her humanity, empathy, and sheer perseverance hold the narrative together, even when some fragments don’t mesh as well as they should.
The supporting cast, most notably Pullman, Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away with Murder), and Kevin Sussman (The Big Bang Theory), buttress the backbone of relatability and empathy. Pullman is solid as a stubborn hotshot scientist but excels as an ordinary dude in love who desires stability. King is a great addition to the mix as Calvin’s neighbor, Harriet Sloan, an assertive and ferocious legal aide fighting to prevent a new freeway from destroying her predominantly Black neighborhood. Sussman, who comes later into the picture as small-time television producer Walter Pine, epitomizes the struggle for professional integrity and dignity many of us face in our workplace regardless of gender or race.
Put together, this bunch will face most of the daily challenges in the lives of workers, women, and people of color, and their friendship and love will resonate even with the toughest of viewers. One will passionately root for all of these folks. That sounds banal, but I advertise this as one of the strengths of Lessons in Chemistry, as there are actually too few shows with such endearing characters. The lush, period-perfect cinematography of Zacahry Galler and Jason Oldak is just a bonus for those who enjoy being transported to a different (though not too different) time.
Be that as it may, there are some issues with the recipe: some crucial scenes are blandly didactic or polished to a Hallmark standard, and parts of the horrendous mess that is Elizabeth’s life tend to wrap up all too neatly or without adequate insight. Many of the men we come across throughout are not really characters but rather just plot-pumping immoral swine, though I personally see no problem with this one.
The biggest qualms of some are associated with the alleged overuse of “trauma plot”, where the protagonist’s suffering is overstated to drive the narrative, but I disagree this is the case with Lessons in Chemistry. For one, it is an axiom that the entirety of civilization is built on trauma and suffering and that women in the 1950s (and today!) were no strangers to dehumanization, paternal violence, or assault. In these respects, Elizabeth’s life story is, sadly, nothing “special” but rather a nod to the general societal issues of the times.
There’s also no reduction in the scope or the development of the characters themselves; if anything, Elizabeth’s greatest trauma isn’t treated as such at all. It makes her more determined and resilient and takes her story in bold new directions. One would also be wise not to forget that, while lazy, even exploitative plotting related to a traumatic past does exist, ignoring that the average person is routinely exposed to traumatic events that shape their entire existence (including the resolution of their stories), is morally primitive and politically ignorant.
Funnily enough, Lessons in Chemistry makes for some compelling drama precisely because it deftly meshes the agonizing effects of trauma with touching instances of human growth through connection and empathy. It shows our complicated, muddled lives as just that, something burdensome that we must endure and subvert if we are to evolve and find our foothold. By the show’s end, we will find out why Elizabeth became a TV host, what happens to her family, and if she ever goes back to scientific work. We will also learn about the fate of the Black community trying to save their neighborhood and what will become of some protagonists’ efforts to learn about their relatives. Mind you, there will be some surprises.
Ultimately, Lessons in Chemistry is a show about the randomness of life and the ever-challenging experience of navigating a hostile world in an indifferent universe. It finds its strength in friendship, love, and community, but it is also refreshingly unsentimental about showing us that (no spoilers), no matter how much we try, we cannot have it all. Its occasional missteps can be quickly forgiven for its honesty.