Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons In Chemistry
Lessons In Chemistry
Genre: Historical Drama
Service: Apple TV+
Creator: Lee Eisenberg
Release Year: 2023
Watch: Apple TV+

Ms. Hipster read this book and enjoyed it. I did not read this book, and I’m pretty sure, after seeing the show, that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it that much. There isn’t even one granule of time travel or post-modern wankery. Which is what I look for in my novels. Because I’m a jerkoff Gen-X nerd who doesn’t like to read what others find enjoyable. Because I’m a miserable consumer of media. And that’s the way I like it. The point is, I may not have partaken in the more popular avenue for Lessons in Chemistry, but I will watch the hell out of a series I think twelve other people in the US might be viewing. Or at least getting all the way through. I don’t follow trends.

So, I just went to the theater with Hipster Jr. Jr. to watch Brie Larson in The Marvels. I mean I went to watch The Marvels, a movie in which Brie Larson appears. She was… fine. Not the best part of the movie. Not the worst. Point is, I came into this series already kind of lukewarm on the whole Brie Larson thing. She has a specific something about her that presents as blank. Devoid of a certain warmth that we expect form our leading ladies. From our top stars. And I’m not certain if that’s just her acting style, the parts she chooses or maybe it’s just who Brie Larson is. The thing is, this role in particular actually calls for her to be that person. That kind of robotic, relatively cold science person. Ms, Hipster — who, I will remind you again, read the book — said it was actually perfect casting. And who am I to argue? So, Brie Larson, the perfect actress to play lead character, Elizabeth Zott, takes on this period piece about a lab tech turned chemist turned cooking-show feminist icon. All while managing what we have to assume is some level of variable neurodivergence.

Okay, we’ve established that Larson was a good choice to play the title character. She’s believable as a chemistry nerd and a woman who cooks with the same level of scientific precision as she does her experiments. Though, she doesn’t seem to actually eat any of the food she cooks. She looks absurdly thin in those cinched waist vintage dresses, her face severe in a way that it isn’t in The Marvels. There is zero softness to her, which is probably accentuated by the pallid makeup they put on her. Despite not seeming to care much about human connection, she ends up pairing with her eventual lab partner and fellow oddball science nerd, Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman). They’re both prickly with others, so perhaps they’re a good match. Ms. Hipster said that the Calvin character in the book is a bit of a son-of-a-bitch, but that they softened his character in the series, probably to make him more likable to a viewing audience. And play into Pullman’s aw-shucks look. Anyway, there’s probably 5% body fat between the two of them. Which is odd for a show that ends up about cooking. But whatever.

Stuff happens, Calvin exits the stage and Elizabeth has to move on with her life with a new baby. She gets screwed over by all the evil men, who have very little respect for women and even less respect for women scientists. The first of our no-duh moments that the show treats as if it’s some revelatory lesson. It leads to her having a cooking show where she shares the science of cooking with an audience made up solely of excited housewives looking to up their casserole game. All the while she has visions of her departed boyfriend / baby-daddy, imagining him and them in some light we really never saw them enjoy when he was around. And then there’s whole thing with her neighbor. A black woman who is fighting against the expansion of the freeway through their African American neighborhood. It’s really, really bad. And apparently an invention for the TV show. It’s honestly verging on cynical, this infusion of a civil rights / economic development story in the middle of a personal tale of growth. It feels totally shoehorned in, and a way to shove some “diversity” into what is otherwise a very whitebred show. I’m all for diversity in storytelling, of course, but not when it’s this clumsy and bolted on. The worst thing I’ve seen all year revolved around this freeway storyline. The neighbor and her group decide the way to get themselves heard is to stage a roadblock of the freeway. A tactic we’ve seen in real life, where citizens walk out into a crowded LA freeway and block already incredible traffic in order to make the news. But in this show, the group gathers on what looks like a part of a road under a freeway overpass that is under construction. So there is literally no traffic on this road… because it’s under construction. So they block no traffic, yet the cops show up and haul them off to jail… Now, Ms, Hipster and I speculated what was going on here. And perhaps it was a budget thing and they could only afford to film on a little offramp of the 405 that hadn’t yet been built? And then realized they couldn’t get cars to that section and just did the best they could? Honestly, I have no idea, but it made no sense and was shockingly confusing/bad. They should have scrapped the entire portion of this story. We don’t need the “Black people had it tough in the 1960s and rich, white Los Angeles destroyed minority communities” storyline. No shit; we all know this. And don’t need Lessons in Chemistry to tell us, or show us, this. It just isn’t relevant to anything going on in this show.

When it comes down to it — and I’m never one to say this — I think this should have been a film and not an eight-episode TV series. It went in circles at times and had multiple tangents that were completely unnecessary. You can see the two hour movie here. In fact, given the chance, I think a talented editor could probably take the footage from this series and edit it down to pretty tight film. We don’t need eight hours to develop Elizabeth Zott’s character. We understand who she is pretty quickly, and there’s not really that much of an emotional character arc over the span of the series. She does, however, change personality quite frequently from scene to scene. One minute she’s Rain Man, and the next she’s cracking jokes and showing empathy. Sort of. This I pin on the writers and Larson. I think she’s supposed to be the former the entire time, but it’s probably a tough slog being that stiff for eight episodes. And the writers probably got bored writing for a chemistry bot. Paring it down would have helped eliminate some of the inconsistencies as well. And, again, we could cut out the dumb freeway thing, which would probably piss of whomever thought any of us would care about this. But, like Elizabeth Zott, I just don’t care. I will also say that the food she cooks never looks very good. Maybe that’s just ’60s cooking, but I don’t think I would have eaten a single thing she makes on her TV show. Because, she’s wrong, cooking isn’t just chemistry. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from decades of Top Chef: food tastes better when it’s made with love. And a sprinkle of passion.

I will leave it there. If not to say that the show felt a little stilted and a little half-baked at times. I think perhaps it’s a matter of a dude who is used to creating more comedic, quirky stuff — like this year’s excellent Jury Duty — and perhaps a period drama was just a little bit too much of a stretch for his skillset. I understand adapting a beloved novel is tough, but sometimes a cash grab can also feel like a cash grab if things don’t feel quite right. Next time, think about making a controlled film out of material that just begs to be a film, and leave dramatic television to the drama professionals.