The joy of Bonnie Garmus' 2022 bestseller Lessons in Chemistry has less to do with its ideas than how she presents them. The novel's central tenet — that women have long been overlooked and mistreated — is one of contemporary culture's prevailing truisms. It drives the witty, propulsive story of a midcentury scientist who suffers routine chauvinism before becoming the unlikely star of a daytime cooking show. Garmus' prose crackles, in part because her protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, does not: She is dry, unflinching, and matter-of-fact.
Adapting Lessons in Chemistry for the screen was always going to be tricky, as confirmed by the new Apple TV+ series developed by Lee Eisenberg, an alumnus of The Office who directed the rowdy movies Bad Teacher and Good Boys. There's plenty to like about the show, but its split personality gives outsize weight to Elizabeth's personal struggles, pushing the humor of her tart resilience to the margins.
Chemistry opens with Elizabeth (Brie Larson) greeting admirers outside the set of Supper at Six, the program she reluctantly agrees to host after being forced out of her laboratory job due to sexist double standards. By refusing to kowtow to the televisual propriety that her new boss (Rainn Wilson) demands, she has ignited something inside the women who watch her academic kitchen tutorials every afternoon, hanging on Elizabeth's words at a time when TV favors conventional June Cleaver types. As Chemistry rewinds to explain how she came to teach housewives the scientific formula for table salt, the premise gives way to a mishmash of tastes.
With a glossy beige template befitting the sincerity of prestige TV, Eisenberg's series — co-written with Elissa Karasik (Loki) and Emily Fox (Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist) — glides through Elizabeth's tenure at Hastings Research Institute, where men show her the same skepticism she has experienced since undergrad. While studying an evolutionary theory called abiogenesis, Elizabeth meets her Nobel-winning soulmate, Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), who has enough clout to get away with championing her and whose presence challenges Elizabeth's resistance to domestic clichés. Larson and Pullman have an easy rapport, accentuating their characters' shared drollness.
The remaining narrative, while engaging, feels crammed — part romantic comedy, part workplace saga, and part civil-rights polemic, with all the tonal shifts those genres necessitate. Calvin and Elizabeth take up rowing, adopt a dog, and give birth to a daughter who shares her mother's precocity. An early tragedy changes the story's focus, inviting an undercooked mystery element that crisscrosses timelines. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's neighbor and rare friend, Harriet (Aja Naomi King), is fighting a racist government plan that would demolish the homes on their mostly Black street to build a freeway extension. Because that subplot also remains surface-level, Chemistry winds up feeling like the sum of its sober social issues rather than its compelling characters. A misogynistic wound from Elizabeth's past also gets more gravity in the show than it had in the book.
Larson, for her part, does well with the material. This is probably her meatiest role since she won the Oscar for Room in 2016, a whole lifetime ago. Larson has led a Marvel spin-off and landed a few decent supporting parts, but high-caliber projects have largely eluded her. As Elizabeth, she manages to convey prickliness without resorting to antihero tropes. Larson pinches her face, but her eyes remain wide and attentive, the look of someone thirsty for the spoils of knowledge. We understand why Elizabeth wouldn't want to be some superficial TV personality — and why that makes her the perfect person to inhabit this fantasy version of 1960s empowerment.
But for all its watchability, Lessons in Chemistry never totally gels. There's wit bubbling around the edges, but it hesitates to be too funny for fear of reducing its heavier themes. As a result, the show feels like a less deft rendering of Garmus' sensibility, which avoided hammy overreach at every turn. If there's a lesson in Chemistry, it's that sometimes the book's formula is all you need.
Premieres: First two episodes premiere Friday, Oct. 13 on Apple TV+, followed by one episode weekly
Who's in it: Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman Aja Naomi King, Rainn Wilson, Kevin Sussman, Thomas Mann
Who's behind it: Lee Eisenberg, creator and co-writer
For fans of: Zippy feminist dramedies like Mrs. America
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8