This year has been full of movies geared toward the women in the audience: The Little Mermaid, Barbie, Priscilla – I could go on. After such a summer of feminine energy, it’s no surprise that Apple TV+ acquired the rights to Garmus’s runaway best-selling 2022 novel. Starring Brie Larson from Marvel’s Avengers, the show premiered in October and is already garnering awards buzz, with an overall rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lessons in Chemistry introduces Elizabeth Zott (Larson), a female chemist fighting for equality in 1950s Los Angeles. She has a run-in with famous scientist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) over some chemical beakers, and sparks fly. But when Elizabeth finds herself pregnant, alone, and without a job, she has to get creative. Struggling to support her daughter, Elizabeth turns her natural knack for cooking into a popular TV cooking show.
At first glance, there’s a lot to recommend Lessons in Chemistry. If you loved Mad Men as much as I did, you’d love the aesthetic of the show, which is driven by fine performances from both Larson and Pullman. The book is a fast paced read (it took me less than two days to finish), has a lot of charm, and has the fairytale-type ending we love so much from a summer beach read.
But neither the book nor the TV show can hide the story’s blatant feminist agenda. The book views marriage as an oppression of women, and the show is rife with progressive politics that prevent its stars from doing any deep, emotional work with the characters. This story may be full of lessons, yes, but all the wrong ones.
Lessons in Chemistry Is Anti-Marriage and Anti-Men
Elizabeth Zott is an independent woman who doesn’t fit in, that is, until she meets Calvin. He falls for her because she’s a brilliant scientist and a good cook. What begins as an electric and productive working relationship becomes a passionate love affair. But there are two problems: Elizabeth doesn’t want children, and she refuses to marry Calvin.
In their longest and most public fight, Elizabeth turns down Calvin’s proposal in their lab’s cafeteria. She will never have respect as a scientist if she takes his name, she explains. She can never be a successful chemist if she pauses her life to bear his children. It’s the same narrative girls are fed at such a young age in a time of progressive feminism. Over and over, Lessons in Chemistry repeats this overarching theme: Marriage oppresses women and their dreams.
The book takes its anti-marriage crusade seriously. Elizabeth’s best friend and neighbor, Harriet Soane, is older in the novel than she is in the show, unhappily married to an abusive man. Harriet’s Catholic beliefs against divorce have kept her stuck in the relationship. It’s seen as a sign of Harriet’s foolishness, and her eventual divorce becomes the symbol of her freedom as a woman. Harriet’s character arc revolves completely on her marriage – or rather, her dissolution of it.
Marriage isn’t the only enemy though; in the world of Lessons in Chemistry, men are. With the exception of Calvin, nearly every man in Lessons is some type of sexual or intellectual predator preying on women in whatever way best serves their interests. Elizabeth’s co-workers steal her scientific ideas. Several men sexually assault her. Even her well-meaning TV producer, Walter, is weak, and he knows it. Garmus’s vision of masculinity is bleak, a far cry from the strength and support truly masculine men provide to the women in their lives.
Garmus has admitted that she began writing Lessons in Chemistry in a fit of what she calls “constructive anger,” after a male co-worker took one of her ideas and presented it as his own in a meeting. While I can relate to the frustration, I don’t think it’s a solid basis upon which to storybuild. Stories that really want to wrestle with the issue of misogyny have to be willing to ask difficult questions and create characters with nuance. Anything less (like what we get in Lessons in Chemistry) results in a collection of earnestly intended but still cookie-cutter male and female stereotypes.
Lessons in Chemistry Can’t Decide If a Woman’s Work at Home Deserves Respect
Some of the most captivating moments of both book and show occur when Elizabeth stands before the studio audience of her cooking show, Supper at Six. As she pulls her pencil from her bun, she invites the eager women into the important work of providing for their families. “In my experience, people do not appreciate the work and sacrifice that goes into being a mother, a wife, a woman,” Elizabeth says in her show’s pilot episode. “At the end of our time here together, we will have done something worth doing. We will have created something that will not go unnoticed. We will have made supper, and it will matter.” Then adapting the language of chemistry – “testing a new variable,” “experimenting in the kitchen” – she guides her audience through delicious recipes.
These moments are the best Lessons in Chemistry has to offer, and they make a promise on which the story never quite delivers. It’s a captivating idea – a professional female scientist revealing to the world that the average woman at home in her kitchen is also a kind of scientist, a master of the craft of homemaking. The idea appeals to us because it’s true.
Yet the promise of this premise is undermined by Elizabeth’s eventual decision to leave Supper at Six after an article is released which makes her look like a TV star and nothing more. She claims that the work she does with her audience deeply matters, yet in the end, it's her reputation as a “serious scientist” that matters the most to her. While we’ve yet to see if Elizabeth’s ending in the show matches that of the novel, I’m willing to bet that Elizabeth Zott won’t be satisfied staying in the kitchen.
It’s a uniquely feminist problem to run into. Does a woman’s traditional work at home for her family matter as much as a job outside the home? If you believe all women deserve respect, you can’t say no. But traditional femininity is the enemy if you’re a progressive feminist, so you can’t really say yes, either. And so, Lessons in Chemistry can’t quite make up its mind.
What Works (and Doesn’t Work) in the Show So Far
If there’s one reason to watch Apple TV+’s miniseries adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry, it’s the performances of Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman. It’s more than good chemistry, though they have plenty of that. Larson’s Elizabeth Zott is a gentler and more feminine character in the show than she is in the book, especially when she is with Calvin. In these quieter moments of the show, we see the Larson who deservedly won an Oscar for Room in 2016.
Calvin is taken from us too soon – quite literally. I wanted way more episodes with Pullman and Larson’s dynamic than I got. It’s a testament to Pullman’s acting chops that his absence is so keenly felt later on and that Elizabeth’s imagined conversations with him later in the show do not seem cheesy. The Calvin of the show is humbler than his book counterpart. He’s devoted to Elizabeth, but he never becomes obsequious. He challenges Elizabeth as much as he challenges the men who refuse to give her credit for her scientific research.
The character who changes the most in the show is Harriet (Aja Naomi King), Elizabeth’s best friend. Instead of an older, unhappily married Catholic, Harriet becomes a woman fighting to keep her neighborhood from being torn down to make a highway. By making Harriet an early member of the Civil Rights Movement, the show tones down the novel’s overt anti-marriage themes, but it opens new storylines that the series does not have time or space to address well. It feels more like the show is borrowing hot-button issues from the progressive politics of today than attempting to portray them with historical accuracy and gravitas.
I’ll say this for Apple TV+ shows, though – they are usually very high in production value, and that makes them pleasant to watch. The costumes of Lessons in Chemistry are an inspired mix of the class of Grace Kelly and the sass of Mad Men’s Joan Harris.
The lighting of the show is particularly striking. Elizabeth’s preferred world of the laboratory is often cold and dark, as are the boardrooms where she fights for credit. It’s only in the presence of the few people who bring light into Elizabeth’s life – Calvin, Harriet, but especially her daughter – that the lights become warmer. It highlights Larson’s performance, giving Elizabeth’s journey a depth in the show that it lacks in the novel.
Lessons in Chemistry reads like a textbook of everything women are supposed to believe about themselves in the feminist narrative. It’s a real shame because the story’s premise had the chance to remind our world that being feminine is important. Despite its efforts, Lessons in Chemistry does little to honor the dignity of the ordinary woman it claims to represent.
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