Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye on what’s new in TV. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of the Brie Larson-led Apple TV+ show Lessons in Chemistry.
Brie Larson is great on TV. The star of Room and Captain Marvel is an excellent film actor as well, sure, but her dynamic, intense performances get more room to breathe on television. Larson started her career on TV, popping up in shows like Touched by an Angel and Popular. One of her career-high points was on the small screen, too, when she managed to steal scenes from more seasoned costars like Toni Collette and John Corbett for three seasons of United States of Tara. More than a decade (and an entire Marvel detour) later, Larson is back on TV with Lessons in Chemistry, playing – appropriately – a TV star.
In the new Apple TV+ series, adapted from Bonnie Garmus’ popular 2022 novel, Larson plays an ambitious chemist who contends with the sexism-riddled work landscape of the 1960s. Her character, Elizabeth, is single-minded and frank, unwilling and incapable of fitting in among a sea of housewives and grinning yes women. She’s a bit of a genius in both chemistry and cooking (the latter, she argues, is just an expression of the former), and she walks around with a perpetual scowl until she meets Cal (Lewis Pullman), a fellow researcher. From there, Lessons in Chemistry evolves into an endearing, unexpected love story – before becoming something else entirely.
You’d think the show’s toughest challenge would be to balance its independent career woman plot with a swooning romance, but there’s so much more going on within Lessons in Chemistry that the deft marriage between these two contrasting elements is the least of the show’s worries. The comedic drama series opens with the promise that, at some point, Elizabeth will become the star of a popular cooking show, which she uses to teach women to feel capable in the kitchen and in life. The path the series takes from her initial adorable geek courtship to her unlikely celebrity is offbeat – if not occasionally inexplicable. In at least two of its eight episodes, Lessons in Chemistry gets weighed down by weird perspective shifts and a rather dissonant focus on the idea of fate. With these detours, Lessons in Chemistry briefly becomes too quirky for its own good.
Luckily, the remainder of the series is utterly charming. Despite its beach read-friendly premise, Lessons in Chemistry is a surprisingly weighty watch that brims with sincere emotion – much of it relayed perfectly through a single expression or line delivery of Larson’s. The actress is a commanding presence here as a pushy, smart woman who’s so unconcerned with her own unlikeability that she accidentally becomes likable. Still, the show does well to lean into Elizabeth’s rough edges and differences, sometimes exploring serious topics through her singular, no-bullshit point of view. Plus, Elizabeth isn’t the only complicated woman taking the road less traveled in the series: her neighbor, Harriet (Aja Naomi King), is a Black community organizer who the series deftly ensures is the main character of her own life – even when white feminist Elizabeth subconsciously casts Harriet in a supporting role in hers.
Mostly, Lessons in Chemistry benefits from its uniqueness and the layered, seemingly random plots it intertwines. There’s probably a point to the show – something about change as a constant – but it’s a lot more satisfying to watch it as a messy but winning portrait of a handful of people shaking the boat together at a time when the status quo was everything. Its high-concept complexity hides simple pleasures, like mic drop lines that perfectly punctuate a scene or moments of surprising tenderness amidst chaos. The show’s dialogue is snappy without sounding particularly stylized (I promise it’s not Marvelous Mrs. Maisel but with test tubes instead of a microphone), and it’s filmed with a sort of understated visual tenderness that helps the story move through its bumpier transitions. The camera loves to register even the most infinitesimal changes in Elizabeth’s emotional state, registered often through Larson’s eyes.
Like a recipe that comes together at the last minute, nearly all of the facets of Lessons in Chemistry – family drama, sweeping romance, feminist fable, workplace comedy – combine better than they should. Those that don’t, like an eleventh-hour deep dive into Cal’s early life that doesn’t particularly enrich the story we’ve already been told, are forgettable enough not to detract too much from the viewing experience. Lessons in Chemistry may be a miniseries, but it builds a captivating, original world across its eight episodes – one that’s a lot of fun to visit and surprisingly tough to say goodbye to.