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Lessons in Chemistry

TELEVISION | Despite missteps, an Apple TV+ series about a brilliant female chemist asks surprisingly good questions

Michael Becker/Apple TV+

<em>Lessons in Chemistry</em>
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Rated TV-MA
Apple TV+

Apple continues its bid to become the premier purveyor of prestige TV with its new series Lessons in Chemistry. The show adapts the runaway New York Times best-selling novel of the same name by Bonnie Garmus.

This eight-part series, set in the 1950s, begins with Elizabeth Zott, played by Brie Larson, standing before a live studio audience as she hosts her wildly popular TV show Supper at Six. But Elizabeth never intended to become a television personality. Her first love is science.

We quickly flash back seven years to a time when Elizabeth struggled for recognition while working in a world-renowned chemistry laboratory. She’s a brilliant chemist, but sexism in the lab relegates her to filling coffee cups for the men. Elizabeth’s situation changes when the laboratory’s star scientist recognizes a kindred spirit in Elizabeth, but the road to love and acceptance will be a bumpy one.

Lessons in Chemistry is rated TV-MA, but like other Apple TV+ offerings, the series doesn’t contain nudity. It has some foul language, but the language leans more PG-13, except in one episode when Elizabeth’s station manager, played by Rainn Wilson, unleashes a ­profane tirade.

Larson plays her role with a wide-eyed earnestness, and Elizabeth’s dedication to her work despite ­living in a world that doesn’t value her abilities gives her a sympathetic quality. But the first two episodes try to undercut our sympathy with a clumsy script that crams in every imaginable feminist trope. It’s not until Episode 4 that the series hits its stride.

Elizabeth is an atheist, and chemistry is her god. She hopes her research will allow her to discover the origins of life, and she’s shattered when turmoil at home and at work steals that research away from her. The second half of the series becomes a slow-burn mystery revealing how what look like disparate storylines all come together to suggest life has meaning beyond chemical bonds.

Lessons in Chemistry attempts too much in its eight episodes. Besides grappling with sexism, the series includes subplots on race relations and neurodiversity awareness and, in a brief scene, ticks the LGBT-inclusivity box to boot. But despite all these competing themes, the series explores questions about the relationship between faith and science. What’s even more surprising than the inclusion of a religious plotline is how well the series pulls it off.

Elizabeth might be an atheist, but she adopts her position from a place of pain rather than conviction. Over the course of the series she finds herself surrounded by church-attending Christians who love and help her, and Lessons in Chemistry showcases the kind of respectful dialogue between ­believers and unbelievers that feels too rare these days. While you shouldn’t expect any “come to Jesus” moments, by the end of the series the dialogue tips ever so slightly in the direction of belief.

Movies based on bestsellers

  • Gone With the Wind / 1939
  • How Green Was My Valley / 1941
  • Gentleman’s Agreement / 1947
  • Father of the Bride / 1950
  • The Caine Mutiny / 1954
  • To Kill a Mockingbird / 1962
  • Jaws / 1975
  • Patriot Games / 1992
  • The Bourne Identity / 2002
  • The Great Gatsby / 2013

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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