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The 1950s Has Never Been Better — Lessons In Chemistry (TV Review)

4 min read
Lessons in Chemistry Apple TV+

This piece was written during the 2023  SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

When a series starts with an uninterrupted camera sequence, you just know it's going to be good.  Battlestar Galactica launched its miniseries with one, True Detective‘s one shot became one of the most talked about episodes of its entire series,  and ER made them become part of the norm.  It builds your hopes up and gets you excited for the show — and boy does deliver.

Adapted by the genius mind of Lee Eisenberg (The Office, Jury Duty)  and executive produced by Jason Bateman (Ozark), we follow the life of Elizabeth Zott, impeccably portrayed as a chemist on the spectrum by Academy Award Winner Brie Larson, a former worker in a chemistry lab, turned tv host.

It's the fifties and we're welcomed to our first introduction to Lewis Pullman's chemist Calvin, if the name sounds familiar, then it should – he's the son of the legendary actor Bill Pullman.

Calvin is seen with an authority issue, despite what some would call jealousy and bitterness from his colleagues. Elizabeth is taken for more of an assistant than a chemist, but then again, it is the 1950's. When she's caught using equipment after hours, she's effectively ignored in her reasons for doing so and her achievements and accomplishments are diminished and belittled because she's a woman.

The chemistry between Larson and Pullman is off the charts and it's evident from their scenes together. Larson's Zott is somewhat reminiscent of Mad Men's Peggy Olson — both sexually harassed, both not taken seriously in their fields and both look like they're about ten seconds from punching the hell out of their boss.

Even if viewers don't have a degree in chemistry, they'll be hooked from the get-go. The needle drop of Dorothy Shay's Feudin' and Fightin' is the perfect metaphor for these two characters. Despite the exceptional soundtrack, it's Larson who absolutely pulls you in. Her portrayal is continuously spellbinding and come the end of episode one, she'll rip out your heart over a burnt lasagne.

The direction from Sarah Adil Smith is just another reason this show is set to reel you in, there are times across the series that make you feel as if you're in the same room as Zott and Calvin — like you could be a chemistry professor and how'd feel smart enough to have a guess at what they're talking about.

Further episodes give us insight into Zott's life before she started working for Calvin — but whilst the first episodes were Larson's time to shine, it then turns to Pullman. He's brilliant as Calvin and as he and Zott have a heart-to-heart about working together, they both realise that they both miss each other and decide that they can go back to working together.

The cinematography in these scenes where the pair's relationship is vulnerable develops, and the directing by Sarah Adil Smith, proves that the right creative team has been enlisted for the job.

Viewers want to spend as much time as they humanly can with these characters, that forty-five-minute episodes don't' feel long enough!  You want to be there for their triumphs, experience their losses and revel in their successes.

The show has done many things right, from its lens of life as a woman in the fifties to making us care for these characters — and that's all down to the casting.  When casting a series, it can be a hit or miss, even if one actor fails to become the part, the series can fall apart.  Luckily, with the help of casting director John Papsidera, this cast is just perfection.

Rainn Wilson's performance as TV Executive Phil Lebensmal is a surprisingly nice addition to the cast, it's also a welcome role for anyone who still only sees him as Dwight Schrute.  Prepare to hate him as he constantly thinks about himself and only himself.

One of the interesting things about Zott's performance is her sense of style.  Her outlandish costumes, bright clothes, and flared trousers leave Phil and the network up in arms, but as usual, Zott takes none of their advice. Things get even more heated for Zott as the series progresses, giving us scenes that are truly powerful to watch.

While other shows might just rehash old scenes of their leads together, Lessons gives us more, newer scenes to build on, which is how we're taken into the final episode. It feels like a big hug from a loved one and you want to hold on as tight as you can before you let go.

The series has been outstanding in all aspects including the production design, editing, writing, directing and of course, the casting.  This is one adaption that will go down in years to come as one of the best.

Lessons in Chemistry is available now on +.