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Cook, Mother, Chemist

Apple TV+’s “Lessons in Chemistry,” the miniseries adapted from the blockbuster Bonnie Garmus novel, retains most of its source text’s charm and bite — but loses some of the spirit

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Actress Brie Larson, in a ‘50s-style housecoat, stands behind a kitchen counter.

Elizabeth Zott isn’t your prototypical cooking show host. The set of Supper at Six is a carnation-pink wonderland, but she has the mien of a reprimanding school teacher with a sardonic edge; if the conventions of the genre demand she embody perkiness, she bucks the trend with brio. When she holds a can of Presto soup to the camera, she abruptly tells her audience that this can of chemicals is poison. “Feed enough of it to your loved ones and they’ll die off, saving you tons of time because you won’t have to feed them anymore,” she says wryly. The show’s male producers sigh in disappointment at their star going rogue, but she isn’t performing for them. Women sitting in the studio diligently scribble down her instructions on notepads, rapt with attention. This is her audience.

So begins Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry, a spirited eight-episode miniseries out this month adapted from the 2022 blockbuster debut novel by Bonnie Garmus. Like its source text, the show charts the rise of the fictional Elizbaeth Zott (Brie Larson), a single mother in suburban California during the 1950s and ’60s who hosts a wildly popular cooking show. Some people — mostly men — might misperceive the format as some airy piffle. But Zott treats Supper at Six as a vehicle to liberate women who are tyrannized by domesticity, presenting cooking as labor worthy of respect rather than cause for subordination. And like the fictional show within, Lessons in Chemistry itself works best as a statement on the feminist power of cooking.

The adaptation arrives at a time of unending fascination with that postwar era when cooking crawled to the center of American culture. Even casual viewers might smell some parallels between Zott and the ascent of Julia Child, who rewrote the script for food celebrity with her WGBH show The French Chef (1963 to 1973). The events of Lessons in Chemistry start out in the decade before Child’s rapid rocket to stardom, back when food television was in its larval stage. The scholar Kathleen Collins writes in her comprehensive 2009 history of food television, Watching What We Eat, about some of the more visible cooking personalities back in the 1950s: These included the prim Brit Dione Lucas, a forerunner of Child in her evangelism of French cooking who began hosting a CBS show in 1947 and carried that work over into the following decade; and convenience queen Poppy Cannon, who’d proselytize the glories of canned food a few years later on NBC, whipping up a mean vichyssoise with a tin of Campbell’s cream of chicken soup. Lessons in Chemistry could easily have been a nostalgia-glossed travelogue to that watershed era, as was Max’s efficient 2022 retread of Julia Child’s life, but its fictive universe gives it the leeway to imagine a more dynamic, and occasionally more utopic, past.

The first half of the show ambles through Zott’s struggles dutifully enough: The viewer meets her in the 1950s, when, as a lab tech, she faces a gag-inducing level of misogyny from her male coworkers. She begins collaborating, and eventually falling in love, with her coworker Calvin (Lewis Pullman), only for him to die tragically and suddenly after saddling her with an unplanned — and, for Zott, unwanted — pregnancy. Expectant motherhood bristles against the discriminatory leanings of the workforce: Zott’s job fires her because she is pregnant and unwed. Periodic reminders of Calvin speckle subsequent episodes as the viewer sees Zott raising her inquisitive, plucky daughter (Alice Halsey) while trying to reestablish her scientific career, turning her kitchen into a makeshift laboratory.

Throughout it all, she cooks. The show is interpolated with ascetic shots of Zott layering lasagnas and sugaring blackberries for a pie filling. Zott approaches meal-making with the needly precision of a scientist. Such sequences could easily have luxuriated in lazy extravagance, the kind that might make an unimaginative reviewer snort that this show will leave you hungry, like, say, the vaguely pornographic sight of timpano in Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996) might. But Lessons in Chemistry takes a more straightforward — and thus refreshing — aesthetic tack, befitting Zott’s philosophy: These shots, stately in composition, emphasize Zott’s outlook on cooking that is mechanical, though not necessarily joyless. “Good food is not a hobby,” she proclaims in one scene. “It is community, it is family, and it is essential.”

The show kicks into high gear around its midpoint, when Lessons in Chemistry revisits the intrigue of its opening scene: Zott lands her own cooking show on a network with sagging ratings and turns it into a runaway success. The viewer intuits that the scope of her influence comes to rival that of the real-world Child, or later, Martha Stewart, in their prime; her audience is comprised of women across racial and social strata. Her reach, Lessons in Chemistry makes clear, is sprawling.

The miniseries wrestles with quite a few hot-button issues, at times more overtly than the book upon which it’s based, and it treats some with a more delicate hand than others. Zott resists the oinks and grunts of male executives or focus group participants who say she should crack a smile. But the show — set in the years just before second-wave feminism and during the burgeoning civil rights movement — addresses topical concerns about race and sexuality primarily through side characters.

Among the most prominent is a storyline involving Zott’s neighbor, Harriet (Aja Naomi King), who is Black, a revision of Garmus’s novel in which a neighbor of the same name was a much older (presumably white) woman. Read cynically, the inclusion of this subplot might seem like a tactical attempt to deflect any accusations about the story’s racial myopia. But rather than feeling hastily jammed into the narrative, this thread reminds the viewer that Zott’s fight wasn’t in a silo; as she strove to have her male bosses take her seriously, so, too, did Black Americans — especially Black women — in securing basic protections for themselves. (The adjustment is less egregious than, say, the transformation of the television producer Ruth Lockwood — who was white — in Max’s aforementioned Julia, a rosy and irresponsible distortion that belies the racial homogeneity of the American food media at that time.) Impressively, these detours away from Zott and her family don’t prevent the show from emulsifying into a cogent whole.

Only on occasion do these alterations feel somewhat patronizing, flirting with anachronism. When Zott uses her live television platform to decry racism against Black Americans — much to the ire of sponsors — Lessons in Chemistry treats her, too comfortably, as a folk hero. Here, the miniseries tips over into the realm of fantasy, a misstep for a show that otherwise doesn’t flinch away from the realities of the horrendous violence the characters in its universe face (there is a graphic depiction of sexual assault, for example, in Episode 2).

Most of Lessons in Chemistry’s other observations about broader social movements don’t feel quite as algorithmically generated. The show retains much of the charm of Garmus’s novel, and its pleasures go down easy. Some tweeness occasionally infects the proceedings; one episode is partially narrated by Zott’s dog, a choice that feels self-consciously quirky, even puerile. But Lessons in Chemistry is quite moving when Zott recalls the loss of her life’s great love, which forms the emotional fulcrum of the show.

Yet where the show falters somewhat, strangely, are the scenes where it should sing: those pinpointed on Zott’s cooking show, which feel more dramatically inert than so much of the motion that surrounds them. Larson is characteristically exceptional when the show tasks her with heavier emotional lifts, grieving the man she loved but never married, or when Zott is piloting herself through motherhood, where she sparks such loose, affable rapport with her on-screen daughter. But when Zott steps before a camera, Larson’s candlepower dims. These Supper at Six sequences can’t quite convey what Garmus was able to accomplish so effortlessly on the page: Zott, like her cooking counterparts in the real world, had a unique and unmistakable incandescence that made her presence speak to a wide swath of women who ached to be seen, heard, and ultimately understood.

Indeed, there’s a charisma that the personalities of Zott’s ilk — Child, Joyce Chen, LaDeva Davis — possessed that these sequences obfuscate. The inspirational beats Lessons in Chemistry builds towards, centered on Zott’s cooking show, thus feel unearned; one wishes that the series lingered for a few moments longer on what made Supper at Six such a potent vessel for Zott’s feminist messaging in a time when this country’s middle-class women found themselves crushed by the boulder of misogyny. That aspect of Zott’s appeal to viewers, and why her gospel struck such a resonant chord with a country of cooks who felt overlooked, remains more of a turbid enigma than it should: the kind of mystery that only fiction could answer.

Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. He has received a James Beard Award for his food writing, and his work has been anthologized in three editions of The Best American Food Writing. He is writing a biography of the actress Merle Oberon.