Lessons in Chemistry review: Brie Larson captivates in this slightly muddled tale
The Marvel actress takes on the lead role in this adaptation of Bonnie Garmus's best-selling novel.
"Children, set the table, your mother needs a moment to her self," is the matter-of-fact statement Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) ends each episode of Supper at Six with, and the phrase itself gives a sliver of insight into the our practical Lessons in Chemistry protagonist.
In the first episode of the new Apple TV+ adaptation, we're introduced to Elizabeth as the no-nonsense, glamorous and poised TV presenter who is at the helm of popular afternoon cooking show, Supper at Six.
No sooner has the series started, though, that we're transported back into the past to figure out just how Elizabeth, a female scientist, got to be in the TV industry.
Based on the bestselling novel by Bonnie Garmus, it's safe to say that the series is airing with a loyal legion of fans waiting to see just how Elizabeth has been transformed on-screen, and how her story will take shape in the form of an eight-part drama.
Well, if there were ever any worries about Brie Larson taking the lead in this anticipated adaptation, brush them aside - as Larson delivers the ideal kind of anti-heroine performance that will keep you strapped in for more.
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I say anti-heroine as, to most, Elizabeth isn't friendly or a people pleaser - she doesn't seek to be the archetypal heroine in this tale.
Instead, she's the kind of woman who is a rarity among the depictions of '50s housewives we regularly see on TV and film. She refreshingly never sees her dreams as too far-fetched given her status as a single woman in a patriarchal society, and we see that drive take shape as we follow her from college through to adulthood.
Her own desire to further her career, despite the hurdles that life has presented her, is the driving force to her success on TV, as she comes to make a living from helping other women see the power in their voice.
Lessons in Chemistry delivers many a poignant moment in this vein, which will no doubt make viewers emotional at the plight that women the world over have had to (and continue to) endure when it comes to navigating misogyny, harassment and patronisation.
But while the messaging of the series and the book reach beyond the time in which it's set, the series feels rather predictable and formulaic.
Nevertheless, following Elizabeth through adulthood is made more interesting by Larson, who is fascinating to watch - delivering the kind of provocative performance that propels this drama forward.
Lessons in Chemistry doesn't really deliver anything radical in its storytelling, but it is packed full of tender and heartfelt moments, especially in the show's first half of episodes, where the pacing leans on the slow side.
We follow Elizabeth as she meets revered scientist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), while they are both working at the Hastings Research Institute.
Soon, sparks start to fly between the pair, as they find out they have more than just chemical research in common - and the series does a stellar job at making sure their budding romance is a delight to watch.
The show includes the kind of romantic scenes that will have you kicking your feet in delight, in a similar dramatic vein to The Notebook, in the way that moody monologues are delivered – but with a lot more thought and heart.
While the blossoming love story between the pair of scientists is some of the sweetest television in a while, the context of Elizabeth with Calvin has a habit of being an overarching theme in the series, with viewers regularly coming back to the thread, rather than seeing the sole focus of the series placed on Elizabeth as her own person.
One of the biggest turns away from the book is the series's characterisation of Harriet, replacing the caregiving housewife with a Black female lawyer who is fighting for the equality of her fellow Black residents.
I'll admit that the plot device is a strange one here. I like to think TV is doing away with the overused 'Black best friend' trope that's often been used in television and film to further a white main character's own emotional and moral development.
While Aja Naomi King effortlessly delivers the kind of performance that certainly makes you take stock and listen, though, the subplot (which actually veers on being a whole parallel storyline to Elizabeth's own) feels hurriedly added on in places for the sake of intersectionality.
The lessons on feminism and race feel muddled here, crying out for appropriate room to breathe - which they're not often given.
Similarly, the flashbacks used in the series provide crucial context to Elizabeth and Calvin's life, but often come later in the show than in the book, providing backstory that reads as a little too late in some instances and not fleshed out enough in others.
The latter half of the season is where more of the action takes place in terms of Elizabeth taking control of her life. While the themes of love, loss, family and science are at the forefront of Lessons in Chemistry, there's no forgetting that its main driving force (like with the book it's based on) is around resilience in the face of oppression.
There are plenty of moments within this show that have been designed to tug at the heartstrings, and that they do. But as much as this series endears, it does often get slightly muddled in the way it attempts to weave in a little too much.
Let's not forget the episode entirely narrated by Elizabeth's dog, Six Thirty, which could have been a cute step in the right direction - but, unfortunately, is just a little odd.
Weird format aside, B J Novak provides the insight into the dog's own thoughts and feelings we didn't know we needed - and, to be frank, we probably really don't, but it makes for an unexpectedly sweet episode all the same.
When we do finally jump seven years forward to Elizabeth being at the helm of Supper at Six, Larson once more drives the series on with a slightly more considered approach to the character, as she leans into her newfound career confidence and the people around her.
Will Lessons in Chemistry knock your socks off? It very well could, but there's a higher likelihood that it'll be a nice watch, something that delivers wit and charm while you make your way through all the episodes – but that's ultimately slightly forgettable.
Lessons in Chemistry premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday 13th October with the first two episodes, then episodes will be released weekly. Sign up for Apple TV+ for £6.99.
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