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Lessons in Chemistry: Series Review

“Let’s begin.”

I did not expect to like Lessons in Chemistry. After one member of my book club nominated it, we all voted it down. My stepmother told me I should read the book, but she still refers to me as a “career girl” and addresses letters to “Miss Josie Kafka” rather than the more accurate “Dr. Josie Kafka.” I just don’t like twee romantic comedies, and everything I thought I knew—1950s setting, smart female chemist with a cooking show and a difficult love life—made this book, and the adaptation on Apple TV, sound like somebody else’s cup of tea.

But Lessons in Chemistry is nothing like what I was expecting.

This review is spoiler-free until you reach the adorable Spoiler Dog. Stop at the dog if you haven’t seen the show! The comments are also fair game for spoilers!

Elizabeth Zott (played by Brie Larson) is a lab tech with a master’s degree in chemistry. She’s the smartest person in the lab, but she’s also in the 1950s, so her colleagues mostly praise her ability to make a perfect cup of “beaker coffee.” She thinks she likes to be alone, but doesn’t realize that she’s lonely. Her personal trauma, her intelligence, and possibly some neurodivergence all make her prioritize safety, which she associates with isolation, and avoid connections, which she associates with being forced to be someone she is not. She creates beautiful dinners, painstakingly perfecting each recipe, and eats them alone.

Enter Calvin Evans (played by Ben Pullman). He’s the second smartest person in the lab, the recipient of a prestigious grant, and juggling all the same issues: trauma, intelligence, and neurodivergence. They bond over science; Elizabeth’s amazing cooking is the catalyst. He’s a solid guy once you get past the bumbling.

Did I order a pair of saddle shoes this week? Yes.

From there, life unspools in all its complicated glory. I’ll discuss specific events below the Spoiler Dog, but for now I’ll say that this show never went where I expected. For instance, I did not expect to spend the entire third episode sobbing my eyes out. That may not make it sound appealing, but this show made me care about these characters, especially Elizabeth, through all the highs and lows.

This is very much a twenty-first-century text about the 1950s and early 1960s, which means that it addresses issues of racism in a sensitive way. The show is aware that it centers on a white woman, but also includes a strong(ish) focus on specific civil rights issues, like the destruction of the Sugar Hill neighborhood in LA to extend the I-10 through downtown to the beach. Aja Naomi King (playing Harriet Sloane) does a lot of heavy lifting as Elizabeth's neighbor, confidant, and voice of the African-American experience in the middle of the twentieth century, but the show allows us moments to celebrate her victories and mourn her defeats.

Lessons in Chemistry is, ultimately, a show about being a second-wave feminist, although nobody ever utters that phrase, or even the word feminism. Elizabeth hit so many roadblocks on her quest to achieve professional satisfaction, which she eventually finds in a cooking show based on chemistry and not talking down to the housewives in her audience.

But this is also a show about the importance of interconnections, and the messiness of life. Whenever characters talk about chemistry, they say things that sound like Instagram quotes on how to bounce back from defeat: “In chemistry, the only constant is change,” for instance. It’s not as annoying as it sounds.

There’s also a strong emphasis on the search for how life got started (abiogenesis), and it pops up often enough as a theme that I started to wonder if the book’s original title was “the origins of life,” which would have underscored the personal and social growth Elizabeth experiences over the decade covered by the show. How do we know when our lives begin? Is it a case of “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”? Or are we sometimes simply in the wrong life, and need to get ourselves—or be nudged—out of our rut?

It's not too much of a spoiler to mention Six Thirty, a street dog that Elizabeth adopts in the second episode. We find out later in the season that Six Thirty, a goldendoodle, has his own traumatic backstory: he was bred to be a mine-sniffing dog for the military, but he hated the work so much that he went AWOL, stumbling into joy and sorrow by teaming up with Elizabeth and her ever-increasing found family. That’s just really sweet, and his character arc echoes so many others on the show.

Can we bring back nice clothing, please?

Before I move into the Spoiler Realm, I do want to highlight one of the most important elements of the show: the clothes. Oh my goldendoodle, the clothes. They’re 1950s but not cartoonish, with beautiful tailoring, especially once Elizabeth starts making television money. But even her house clothes have a wonderful classic vibe that grounds them in the historical moment while feeling wearable today.

This is a spoiler dog! Beware spoilers below!

And now, for the spoilers: Lewis Pullman totally won me over as Calvin, and not just because “super-smart guy who can also fix things around the house” is literally my dream partner. I think I’ve only seen Pullman in Bad Times at the El Royale, but I usually get him confused with Miles Teller, so I may be mistaken.

His death absolutely threw me for a loop. Above, I said that I expected this to be a romantic comedy; I never expected the boyfriend to die. And then I never expected the next episode to be narrated by a dog who blames himself, which is what led to me sobbing for an entire hour... Okay, I’ll rein in the emotions now. They’re still lurking under the surface, but maybe you can’t see them as you read this.

Elizabeth’s life has so many distinct stages: the terrible childhood, the student years (which we don’t see), the lab tech years, the time with Calvin, the years of early motherhood when she’s barely making ends meet, the TV years that finally give her enough power and money to start making changes on purpose. These feel like brave narrative choices to me, not just what the show is portraying but the way that it was willing to move efficiently but not too quickly through so many years, trusting us to still feel the weight of them.

This is a show that is aware of how very hard things are sometimes. How slow growth is. How lack—of money, of influence, of social autonomy, of support—can inhibit growth because sometimes we’re just too busy for that. In my Best of 2023 post, I mentioned Jeremy Cooper's novel Brian, about a traumatized, solitary man who gradually comes just a little bit out of his shell. It takes him decades, and it’s not much progress by any measure most of us would use. He does, though, end up happier than he was.

Lovely recurring shot.

But, like that book, this show doesn’t get stuck in the difficulty. It shows how little moments, like supporting a friend, or trusting a new acquaintance, can have positive consequences we don’t anticipate. It shows us how sometimes people can make just the right sort of offer, like when Elizabeth’s doctor tells her to join his rowing team. Elizabeth embraced her loneliness to protect herself. This is a show about a woman gradually letting people in.

And what lovely people! The lab guys weren’t my favorite, because of the sexism, but the producer (Kevin Sussman as Walter) was wonderful, as was the return of office manager Fran Frask at the end of the season (played by Stephanie Koenig). The increasing focus on Harriet’s parallel journey to becoming a lawyer and public figure was a lovely touch. The sudden importance of the Reverend Wakely (Patrick Walker) was a strong counterpoint to the terror that religion caused for both Elizabeth and Calvin in their youth.

Sure, some moments were a bit too pat. What are the chances that Wakely would know Calvin that well? That Mad would befriend a girl whose dad was perfect positioned to solve their financial problems? But do I care? Not really. In a flashback, Calvin and a random date briefly discuss the difference between coincidence and statistical probability, and that’s enough for me. The similarity to Dickens, who never met a problem he couldn’t solve with a coincidence, feels resonant, too.

Elizabeth’s daughter Mad deserves a shout-out as well. It must have been difficult to cast a child who could pull off such an articulate role, and Alice Halsey did an amazing job. She, perhaps more than Calvin, was the inciting event for so many of Elizabeth’s changes. Or, as Harriet would put it, an opportunity for Elizabeth to expand.

Internet rumor has it that the showrunner, Lee Eisenberg, is willing to do a second season, but also aware that they’ve exhausted the source material. I hope they don’t. This was a complete story. We don’t need more. What they gave us was perfect, and far beyond my expectations.

Four out of four Sugar Hills

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. We read the book last year in one of my reading groups. It is the only time that we all unanimously raved about how great it was. Look forward to watching the series!

    1. Victoria, I think I may recommend that my book club reconsider our initial rejection.

      I'm sure the cover and general blurbs the publisher picked did a lot to build an audience for the book, but I also think they're missing out on a bunch of people who don't love rom-coms!

  2. Josie, I suspect you're going to make me subscribe to Apple+ again.

    1. They've got some interesting SF shows that I haven't watched yet, too.

  3. I finished the book, and it is one of the best I've read in a couple of years. Maybe since The Martian, although I hesitate to put them in the same sentence since they're nothing alike. The dog Six-Thirty does an incredible job with the narration and I know why you cried through that episode. Everything else plot-wise and character-wise you describe in your review I recognize, except that Harriet is not black and there's nothing about Sugar Hill, but honestly, it fits so well I get why they did it.

    I can't wait to see this limited series. And I do hope that it stays limited. This is the author's first book. I actually put off finishing it because I wanted to savor it by reading it more slowly -- I didn't want it to end.

    1. Billie, does the dog narrate the whole book?

    2. No, we just get his POV a few times, how he sees the world.


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