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Life beyond chemical bonds

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WORLD Radio - Life beyond chemical bonds

Apple TV+’s adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry dishes out stereotypes of sexism but also puts big questions of life under the microscope for serious consideration


Brie Larson in "Lessons in Chemistry." Photo by Apple TV+

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, October 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a new TV show based on a bestselling book.

Apple TV+ might not have a catalog as large as Netflix’s, but it’s gaining a reputation for being the home of prestige TV. Apple seems especially dedicated to literary adaptations. So far in 2023, Apple TV+ released six series based on novels.

BROWN: The latest is Lessons in Chemistry. It's based on a novel of the same name by Bonnie Garmus, a book that spent almost a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Here’s a review by WORLD arts and culture editor Collin Garbarino.

STATION MANAGER: Rolling. We’re live in 5, 4, 3…

ELIZABETH: Welcome, viewers. My name is Elizabeth Zott, and this is Supper at Six.

AUDIENCE: [Cheering applause]

COLLIN GARBARINO: Lessons in Chemistry is an eight-part series about an independent-minded woman trying to make her way in the 1950s. It begins with Elizabeth Zott, played by Brie Larson, standing before a live studio audience as she hosts her wildly popular television show Supper at Six. But Elizabeth never intended to become a television personality. How did she end up here?

ELIZABETH: Let’s get started, shall we?

We quickly flashback seven years to a time when Elizabeth was a budding scientist struggling for recognition while working in a world-renowned chemistry laboratory. She’s brilliant, but sexism in the lab relegates her to fulfilling menial tasks for the men.

ELIZABETH: Of course, I would be much further along in my research if I wasn’t making excellent coffee for mediocre chemists.

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. But those chemistry skills come in handy when preparing the perfect lasagna.

ELIZABETH: At about 92 degrees, the solid milk fat in the cheese liquifies and the bonds holding together the casing proteins break, but the melt isn’t smooth.

Like most of Apple’s other bookish inspired series, Lessons in Chemistry is rated TV-MA. But like other Apple offerings, the series doesn’t contain nudity, apart from one brief glimpse of a man’s backside while showering. Some episodes have foul language, but the language leans more PG-13, except in the one in which Elizabeth’s station manager, played by Rainn Wilson, unleashes a profane tirade.

STATION OWNER: Let me explain something to you.

ELIZABETH: Men are always trying to explain and women are expected to sit and listen.

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 are so heavy handed they almost undercut our sympathy. The clumsy script trots every imaginable stereotypical example of sexism.

ELIZABETH: How many female scientists can you name?

CALVIN: Madam Curie.

ELIZABETH: Exactly. Do you think that’s just by happenstance?

Sexism isn’t the only social ill Lessons in Chemistry attempts to address in its eight episodes. The series also includes subplots on race relations and neurodiversity awareness and, in one brief scene, ticks the LGBT-inclusivity box to boot. At times the series feels a little overstuffed.

It’s a shame the first two episodes are a little cliched and cringey because the series gets much better as it continues. By episode four Lessons in Chemistry really hits its stride, asking thoughtful questions we don’t usually see on TV.

CALVIN: We are quite bad at celebrating Christmas.

ELIZABETH: Christmas is a fiction.

CALVIN: Right. Christmas is a fiction. I forgot about that.

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 personal turmoil steals that research away from her. The second half of the series becomes a slow-burn family mystery revealing that seemingly disparate storylines all come together to suggest life has meaning beyond chemical bonds.

ELIZABETH: Sometimes you can’t count on a formula. Sometimes you can’t control each variable. Sometimes. Many times, things just turn out messy.

Despite so many competing themes, the series finds room to explore 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.

WAKELY: But I believe that the mystical and the natural are not fundamentally opposed. The way I see it, science is the how and religion is the why.

We learn that Elizabeth adopted her atheism from a place of pain rather than sense of conviction. Over the course of the series Elizabeth and her family find themselves surrounded by church-attending Christians who love and help her.

WAKELY: I’m Reverend Wakely. This is my church.

MAD: I’m Mad Zott. I don’t have a church because my mom said God isn’t real.

This series 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.

And, as with many of Apple’s other series, the TV show is actually better than the book.

MUSIC: [Lessons in Chemistry theme]

I’m Collin Garbarino.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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