‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Review: Brie Larson’s 1950s Drama Is a Jumble of Different Tones

Lessons In Chemistry stars Brie Larson as a 1950s scientist who uses her wasted talent to carve a career as a TV chef. Based on the novel of the same name by Bonnie Garmus and brought to the big screen by Lee Eisenberg (Little America, WeCrashed), Lessons In Chemistry blends genres and mixed messages for an uneven result.

Starting in the early 1950s, Elizabeth Zott (Larson, who also produces), a determined but socially awkward scientist, has her dreams repeatedly stopped by the patriarchal society. She has an obvious future as a career academic, but as a female scientist, she faces too many hurdles to overcome.

Elizabeth endures degradation and disrespect from her earliest undergraduate days. A sexual assault by a peer haunts her throughout her career, which ensures she keeps her office door open at all times. Despite her obvious brains, her entirely white male laboratory team forces her to make coffee for her fellow scientists.

Throughout the eight-episode show, Elizabeth proves herself the smartest person in the room, often helping her male peers with little to no acknowledgment. Audiences may have difficulty connecting with Elizabeth as the show portrays her as cold and condescending, often intending to make others feel inferior. This characterization often impacts the emotional beats of this story.

A Love Story

Aja Naomi King Lessons in Chemistry
Image Credit: Apple TV +.

She fits the cliché of a loner: no-nonsense and antagonistic with her colleagues. At times, Larson’s performance feels like a misinformed parody of someone neurodivergent. Considering Larson’s talents, she fails to add nuance to Elizabeth. Even when the women in the office try to include the scientist in their beauty pageants, she shows no grace.

Elizabeth is suspicious, for good reason, of every man she meets. Her perspective on men and relationships changes when she meets Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), a successful but eccentric scientist. He sees in Elizabeth what the whole world should have noticed: her smarts and capability of working on an equal level to the men in their workplace. Calvin also unlocks a softer side of her personality, an element of the role better suited to Larson's skills.

After Elizabeth finds herself unable to continue her work in the lab, she finds a new career as a cooking show host. Food and cooking have always held a special place with Elizabeth. At one point, they offered the only way she could put her chemistry knowledge to good use. She also uses food to bond with Calvin, the pair sharing lunches in the cafeteria when they have previously spent break time either alone or at work. 

Elizabeth's Unlikely TV Career

Lessons In Chemistry
Image Credit: Apple TV +.

A chance encounter with a down-on-his-luck producer (Big Bang Theory’s Kevin Sussman) leads Elizabeth in front of the camera. Supper At Six is supposed to be a sexier cooking show format for the modern housewife, but Elizabeth has other ideas. She becomes a hit with housewives for blending her love of chemistry with cooking, much to the discontent of the station manager (an underused Rainn Wilson).

Instead of following their format of being a fresh and attractive housewife, she wants to teach the audiences at home how to make a good lasagna but explain acidic balance and chemical compounds. She delivers all these cooking tips with a slice of anachronistic empowerment. It requires some suspense of belief from the audience, as one moment, the series sketches Elizabeth as a hard-faced woman who can’t paint a smile for a work event, and the next minute as a beloved TV figure.

Her spot on primetime television means women finally listen to her. She has always had something to say, she needed an audience. At times, it seems farfetched that a woman like Elizabeth could connect to so many households with her brash nature. The cooking scenes offer some of Lessons in Chemistry's funniest moments, allowing the writers to get their teeth into parodying 1950s domesticity and femininity. 

A Tonal Mess

Brie Larson Lessons in Chemistry
Image Credit: Apple TV +.

Lessons in Chemistry has an uneven tone and feels unsure of what message it wants to convey. On the surface, the Apple TV+ show presents itself as a story of a talented woman blocked from her life’s calling by the underestimation of men. The story soon takes a turn into this Hepburn/Tracy-style romance, allowing Larson and Pullman to shine despite the mediocre script. 

The middle of the show gets lost in genres and tones. One of the oddest moments in a recent TV show comes when an emotional scene is narrated from the point of view of Elizabeth’s dog. This approach may have worked in the source novel, but it loses any emotional impact on the small screen. The switches between serious and mawkish induce whiplash, often skipping the more interesting plot threads in favor of flashbacks and unnecessary backstories. 

Aja Naomi King’s Harriet Sloane gets pushed to the side as a legal assistant fighting the good fight. She and her family welcome Calvin into the predominantly black neighborhood and act as a guide for the couple throughout their life. Sadly, Harriet does not get the story she deserves. She has a passion for law but cannot practice as more than an assistant due to race, gender, and economics. Her story should parallel Elizabeth’s, not just become a footnote.

Lessons in Chemistry's writing is too skittish, skirting around massive plots and jumping between characters. Huge topics like religion vs. science, the meaning of family, and the era's politics get mentioned without exploration. Lessons in Chemistry has too much to say about a dark era for minorities and insufficient time to give each topic the respect it deserves.

Some of the positive and well-meaning messages get muddied in this clash of genres. Lessons In Chemistry handles big themes like sexual assault, motherhood, and race relations too succinctly that they feel minimised.


Rating: 4/10 SPECS

Lessons in Chemistry arrives on Apple TV+  Friday, October 13, 2023, with new episodes debuting weekly.

Author: Amelia Harvey


Amelia Harvey is an English film and TV critic. Her great loves include quiet dramas, noisy reality TV, and ridiculous blockbusters. Amelia has been a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic since 2019 but has been writing lifestyle and entertainment articles since 2012. Her bylines include Why Now, Signal Horizon, Screen Queens, That Hashtag Show, Digital Spy and Screen Rant. An English literature graduate and former tutor, Amelia is passionate about female stories and LBGTQ+ voices.