Last night we watched the first episode of “Lessons in Chemistry,” about Elizabeth Zott, a chemist in 1951 who is forced to take a humiliating job as a lab tech because of sexism and who ends up hosting a highly successful cooking show on TV. The show stars Brie Larson (who is not, I subsequently learned, the same person as Alison Brie).
Elizabeth is determined and humorless and takes up with Calvin Evans, a male chemist, who is also determined and humorless and is the only person who sees her for who she is. Both characters are endearing.
The costumes and period designs are beautifully done. Perhaps too perfect, but that’s typical of period shows. All the cars are clean and in mint condition; clothes are neat, clean, pressed, and tucked in. In real life, in 1951, you’d see a lot of wrinkles and untucked shirts and the occasional stain, just like today. Some cars would be nice; some would be beaters. But not in the world of “Lessons of Chemistry.” That’s fine.
I liked the show but did not love it. I was not hooked, but I’ll give it another episode, and I expect to enjoy it more over time. Julie loved it from the beginning—she just read the novel it’s based on and loved that.
One unbelievable note jumped out: Calvin is presented as having moderate-to-severe allergies. He becomes dramatically ill, simply smelling a woman’s perfume. He lives on saltine crackers and vending machine peanuts. (The vending machine, by the way, is a beautiful midcentury design.) He joins Elizabeth for lunch, and she insists he try the lasagna she made for herself. He plunges in a forkful and pronounces it delicious. As a person with allergies myself, I know that nobody with allergies will try a strange food off someone else’s plate without first inquiring about the ingredients.
“Lessons in Chemistry” has echoes of another recent series, last year’s “Julia,” about the origin story of Julia Child. Also a smart show set in post-WWII America with beautiful period costumes and designs about a strong, smart woman battling sexism to host a successful cooking show.