Lessons in Chemistry uses interesting, unique characters and powerful themes to tell a story of love and science. It isn’t the usual kind of storytelling – one episode is told from a dog’s point of view – but it works to create a series worth watching. There are spoilers ahead.
Lessons in Chemistry stars Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott. She was a brilliant chemist working toward a Ph.D. when something happened and she dropped out of university. All she cared about was chemistry. She was working as a lab tech for a bunch of lesser minds who were A) men, and B) did have the Ph.D. qualification. They expected her to make coffee and participate in the annual beauty pageant. Aarrrgggg!
Elizabeth liked to cook. It was more chemistry experimentation for her. Elizabeth and chemist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) connected over food. She fed him lasagne and they talked chemistry. He asked her to work in his lab. Together as equals they worked on understanding DNA. This is in the 1950s, before Watson and Crick became famous for it in the 1960s.
Their work is a big what if in the story. What if women scientists were treated as equals by the scientific establishment? What if Calvin hadn’t met with a tragic accident?
Elizabeth and Calvin fell in love and moved in together in Calvin’s house. Elizabeth brought her adopted dog, Six Thirty. Calvin lived in a predominately Black neighborhood.
This neighborhood gave the story room to include their neighbor Harriet (Aja Naomi King) and her struggles to keep the city from running a freeway through the middle of their community. Aja Naomi King had a significant part in this series. She was fantastic.
Harriet and Elizabeth became friends and supporters for each other.
The first few episodes in this 8 episode series established Elizabeth’s genius, had Elizabeth and Calvin fall in love, and then Calvin was killed in a traffic accident. The middle part of the story is what happened when Elizabeth discovered she was pregnant and was thrown out of her job as a lab tech. The work she and Calvin did was stolen by the men at the lab who had refused to give her a chance.
Lewis Pullman as Calvin appeared in every episode, even after he died. In flashbacks or imagined conversations with Elizabeth, he didn’t disappear from the story.
Their daughter Madeline Zott (a terrific Alice Halsey) was as smart as her parents. The middle part of the story is about raising Madeline. To make money, Elizabeth did everything from correct the work of the chemists at her former job to selling Tupperware. Finally she landed a job doing a cooking show on television. It was part cooking and part chemistry. It made her famous.
In the final third of the story, little Madeline started an investigation into her father. She wanted to know where he came from and who was in her family tree. With the help of Pastor Wakely (Patrick Walker) from the neighborhood Black church, she found some upsetting and surprising answers. Beau Bridges and Rosemarie DeWitt had small roles in the series because of what Madeline learned in her search for her past.
Those are the outlines of the story. Using those events, this series had plenty to say about racism, discrimination against women, unethical men, lying priests, and social norms around unwed mothers.
Brie Larson shone as Elizabeth. She was hyper focused, logical, and always thinking about science. She was subversive. She cooked in a lab coat. She wore pants on television – a big scandal. She was painfully honest. Brie Larson has done excellent work in the past and once again proves she’s a major American talent. Aja Naomi King is right up there with her.
This Apple TV+ series used all women directors including Bert & Bertie, Tara Miele, Millicent Shelton, and Sarah Adina Smith.