REVIEW: All You Need is Chemistry
November 13, 2023
Disclaimer: I (obviously) wrote this having not yet read the book and only having seen the first episode.
Walking into a bookstore, it's hard not to recognize the Contemporary Romance section, made up of cartoony covers with exchangeable couples and bright neon colors. Lessons in Chemistry, the novel by Bonnie Garmus which is currently at its 48th week on the NYTimes Bestseller list, with its bright pink cover featuring a woman with a pencil tucked smartly into a bun, would not be out of place here. And thus, as I sat down to watch the pilot of Apple TV+'s adaptation, I thought I knew what to expect: a new entry into the rom-com renaissance, complete with quippy dialogue, loveable characters, and a predictable plot that I'll eat up regardless.
I was surprised, then, to be greeted with a clunky, awkward, preach-y feminist show about a woman, Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), who has a strong desire to be a scientist, but given that it is the 1950s, her aforementioned state of womanhood bars her from this ambition. The plotlines seem predictable and repetitive: she is forced to pause her research in order to make coffee, she is forced to join the staff beauty pageant, and, in a line so inevitable I'm ashamed I didn't call it beforehand, she is told to smile more. Even the male lead, Dr. Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), is introduced in a sequence dripping with common tropes. He's an awkward wunderkind who looms larger in people's minds than in their actual presence, because he's also a chronic shut-in. He is immediately made to parallel Elizabeth, both with brains moving too fast for communication, but where his oddities are accepted, hers are put down. It appears we'll be seated for another formulaic show full of common tropes and pastel dresses, one my mom will definitely love and that will fade from memory as soon as it's replaced with another of its exact form.
And then the meet-cute happens. Well, meet-ugly, as is more common in modern iterations of the genre. I'll spare you the exact details of their meeting, but when the pair finally gets to talking, and the chemistry (ba dum tiss) starts flowing, the show finally finds its feet. Larson and Pullman are electric together, and suddenly all the tropes are excusable. Yes, maybe there's an over-the-top feminist 50s plotline, and maybe he's still an antisocial genius and she's a woman plagued with the worst malady that can face a woman before the twenty-first century: ambition. But when the two of them are on screen together they soar. The pair bond over a sequence of lunches and discussions of science, spewing words I can hardly understand, but it doesn't take a genius to notice when he leans in and she smiles into her shoulder. It's clear from their first meeting that the two share the same love language, but they also manage to project it on-screen in such a palpable way that it is impossible to not understand. Brie Larson, who broke out in 2016's Room and rightfully won an Oscar for her performance, has been genre-hopping ever since, enjoying the artistic freedom that an Academy Award offers while also taking center stage in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her performance comes off at first a little intense, but softens with the character. Lewis Pullman, who I suspect will soon finally break from the "Discount Tom Holland" reputation which has plagued him since his breakout role in 2018's Bad Times at the El Royale, a role that Holland reportedly passed on before it was offered to Pullman. Pullman had a small role in Top Gun: Maverick, but appears now to be making his own name as a romantic lead.
The show takes place in the 1950s, and does not let you forget it. It appears that outside of the lab, life is nothing more than multicolored circle skirts, pastel cars, and evening cooking shows. In a bizarre interruption I hope will come back later, we meet Evans's neighbors, a black family with two young children, as they make protest signs for a proposed highway meant to cut right through their neighborhood. The systematic destruction of black neighborhoods with the justification of road building projects is certainly something that was happening at the time, but the scene turns its attention to Evans's reaction to this (he is somber, of course), as if, in order to gain permission to exist in a 2023 television show as a white man, he has to be shown sympathizing with current events. The show will likely continue to grapple with the urge to tackle every issue in order to become something "more" than just a formulaic rom-com. And, aside from the fact that rom-coms are generally considered lesser art forms because their primary audience is women, it doesn't need to be more than just a rom-com. It is in the moments when the show leans fully into its rom-com-ness that it is most enjoyable. It certainly takes on some big challenges, ones I am curious to see how they will address in the eight upcoming episodes, but the thing that will have me returning is the sight of Elizabeth and Calvin on-screen together.