‘Lessons in Chemistry’ series review: Brie Larson headlines a quaint tale that is organic, but struggles to create a bond

In Lessons in Chemistry, author Bonnie Garmus has her protagonist declare at every significant turn: “Chemistry is change.” That should have been warning enough while anticipating the series, at least. In effect though, it’s practically impossible because of what reading Lessons in Chemistry does to you; it takes you into a quaint, sometimes believable, in parts hilarious and cruel world — supplemented with a happy ending — and keeps you there ensconced in a piece of well-written fiction, but a place which you get comfortable enough to disregard the signs.

Because change, quite dramatic, determines the course of this limited (8-episode) series adaptation. “Change is disorienting and takes some getting used, Ms Zott,” you say to yourself and your current favourite heroine, the moment you realise the screen adaptation follows a mostly linear path, leaving behind the zig-zag chronology of the book in favour of a simpler, but possibly jerky retelling. That’s where it begins, and then, you realise the point about change is germane here. But with every major change, you still do a double take, maybe hastily turn the pages of the by-now well worn book to see if your mind is playing tricks on you. Thankfully, it is not; it’s just that the series in parts both sticks to the book, and meanders away from it.

While the bestselling award-winning book by Garmus sates your soul, and technically the book should be enough, we have all become creatures of media, we need more, not less; we need colour, not monochrome; we need multiple versions, not just one. So, the announcement of a series demanded a yip of joy. But the series itself? It’s certainly got something going for it, and sure, establishes the chemistry between the characters and kitchen quite well, but for those that have to go from book to screen, there’s a big leap and a series of similar smaller hops at every diversion.

But then, we leap too. To start from the beginning, set in the 1950s, Lessons in Chemistry is a quaint tale about chemistry (also known as love) that blossoms between two genius misanthropes working in a university chemistry lab, and the chain of extraordinary events that results from their rather brief, though eminently strong covalent bond. Elizabeth Zott is the quintessential genius who is looked over, even assaulted as was the norm in the period in which she lived (the 50s), and essayed very well by Brie Larson. She is the best part of the show, and the reason why it may work. The 50s version of a computational gastronome, Zott has a unique relationship with cooking and its components, a key plot point.

Lessons in Chemistry

Developed by: Lee Eisenberg

Director: Sarah Adina Smith

Cast: Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, Aja Naomi King, Stephanie Koenig

Episodes: 8

Runtime: 46 to 50 minutes

Storyline: A newly unemployed chemist turns into a TV cooking show host to educate housewives on scientific topics

She lands up at Hastings, a dyed-in-the-wool patriarchal university set up, and somehow forms a connection with Calvin Evans (a charming cameo by Lewis Pullman), a lonely and maverick genius that the lab and varsity shelter as a precious funding magnet. In her tale, there is a strong resonance of what we recently learnt of what Katalin Kariko, this year’s Nobel Prize winner for medicine was subject to in her lab, albeit a whole three decades later than Zott. So, in a sense never mind how much changes, some things remain the same. Kariko is the later-day Zott, and to both of them, gratifyingly, recognition finally comes. An expression of feminism, less in your face than Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, is built into Lee Eisenberg’s screen adaptation Lessons in Chemistry, more subtle than the book too, yet satisfying.

As the story weaves through wild, nearly implausible coincidences and just-misses, Zott goes from her lowly position as lab mat to a hugely popular TV cooking show host. The unexpected result of the bonding between her and Evans is the young, dazzling brilliant Mad Evans Zott (a charming portrait by Alice Halsey) who launches a school exercise to fill out her family tree and travels to find the antecedents of her orphan father, going where no one has been for a long while. A secret is revealed and without giving away any spoilers, all is broadly well that ends well.

Brie Larson in a scene from ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

In the book, the back-and-forth movements are negotiated well within the wide arch of its storytelling path, but in the series, they seem jerky, lumpy, sometimes not entirely making sense until much later, much like the burnt lasagna in Zott’s lab-study kitchen. As she herself says, “That was not the intended outcome… sometimes you can’t control each variable. Sometimes, many times, things just turn out messy.”

The harried, abused older Harriet Sloane, who becomes Zott’s guardian angel of sorts (in the book), transforms into a young black American activist, campaigning not only for neighbourhood rights, with significant Black history overtones. While Aja Naomi King pulls off a great essay, that strand seems untied at the end. In the book, the elderly Harriet, inspired by the strong women she has come to know, takes a bold step and has a chance at love again. All loose ends are tied up neatly in little bows, the author not forsaking even a single sub plot.

In the book, the reveal is slow, gentle, and more plausible, while the series shrugs off the process, to thrust readymade, serendipitous solutions at us. This lack of process — of being denied the pleasure of opening every wrapper until you reach the gift nestling inside — makes the consistency a bit lumpy, even as it tries to smooth over logic with merry coincidences.

Director Sarah Adina Smith attempts a valiant adaptation of a book billed as “most read” and “most sold” not so long ago (just last year) — no mean task in itself. To accomplish this, she brings in some great actors, apt music, a superb opening score and visuals, but in interpretation, when the whole is less than the sum of its parts, there’s something missing in that equation.

Lessons in Chemistry is currently streaming on Apple TV+