Beautiful, Unrealistic Solutions (Lessons in Chemistry Review #4)

Well readers, an entire term has gone by and I did not continue my column on the Apple TV+ series, Lessons In Chemistry in a timely manner. Apologies. I know you all were dying for more of my ramblings on this very mid show. As it is the last paper of the academic year, I will cram my reviews of each remaining episode of the series into this one column. Lord knows we don’t need to be held in suspense over the summer nor have this column bleed into the next academic year.

Poster for the show Lessons in Chemistry. It’s a picture of the lower half of a woman, holding an old-fashioned TV set that shows her face on the screen. The title fo the show is below it, with the word “In” stylized like the periodic table element indium.

To recap, in the past three episodes, we meet Elizabeth Zott, a chemist whose life was derailed by a series of unfortunate events: raped and dismissed from her Ph.D. program, fell in love with a man—Calvin Evans—who dies, had her research stolen, and was fired for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Sometimes life sucks and you hit rock bottom.

Zott, however, is in luck. The next four episodes in the series take Zott on an unanticipated journey up and out of the hole she is in. In brief, Episode 4 focuses on Zott’s financial and emotional struggle of single motherhood with daughter Mad; Episode 5 centers on Zott’s miraculous launch to fame as a new TV cooking show host; Episodes 6 and 7 revolve around the mystery and backstory of Evans; and Episode 8 magically resolves all of Zott’s problems with a windfall of cash and her second enrollment in a Ph.D. program. Lord, I wish that was how every comeback story would be. But Lessons In Chemistry is fiction. Lessons In Chemistry was adapted from a book written by a woman who doesn’t know what it is like to try again in the field of Chemistry. To start again from scratch.

Episode 4: Primitive Instinct

Zott delivers her daughter alone and names her Mad—not for Madeline, but because she is mad. During the delivery and while raising Mad, Zott envisions Evans still alive and helping her parent. She never got to know him more or tell him she loved him. While grieving his loss, Zott leans on her neighbor, Harriet Sloane, for parenting advice and support. During this time, Zott struggles financially. She scribbles costs in a notebook: no income and crushing debt are burying her. As more and more bills arrive in the mail as overdue, Zott gets creative and starts a job as a consultant telling chemists what they are doing wrong with their research. She later finds out that Dr. Borowitz and Dr. Donotti have taken up her research project at Hastings Laboratory and are being funded by the Remsen Foundation.

Fast-forward seven years in the future: we see Zott’s daughter giving away her lunch to another girl at school because her TV show producer and single father, Walter Pine, fails to provide an adequate lunch for his daughter. Once Zott discovers that Mad is not eating her lunch, she storms into Pine’s office to scold him and leave him with a recipe and Tupperware of her food so he can correct his ways. Pine tastes her food and runs to her as she leaves the production set. He offers her a job as the host of a local televised cooking show, “Supper at Six.” She turns him down.

Episode 5: CH3COOH

As Mad attends school, she quickly learns new material and becomes bored with the pace set for the other students. Mad becomes disruptive in class regularly, prompting her teacher to recommend to Zott that she be enrolled in a private school with a more advanced curriculum. Zott currently supports her family through sales made during Tupperware parties, but needs more money to put her daughter into private school. She tries to get a job at the Phillips Lab, but they require references from Hastings Labs. Hastings Labs refuses to write her a letter of recommendation. As a result, Zott returns to Pine and accepts the “Supper at Six” host position.

Zott begins teaching women of the viewing area about delicious recipes and the chemistry behind the meals. While Zott can now afford to send Mad to private school, she works late and leaves Mad under the care of Sloane. Sloane takes Mad to choir practice where she meets Reverend Wakely. Mad becomes obsessed with finding out more about her deceased father and Wakely helps her on her quest. Zott transforms the “Supper at Six” show and becomes famous amongst female viewers. Zott speaks directly to the women at home watching and even answers questions from the predominately female audience at the end of the show. Reviews of the show from men are negative because they can’t see her figure under the lab coat, they think she is boring, and they dislike that she never smiled once. Women, however, felt empowered by the show. The phones keep ringing at the TV station, because viewership has increased and women are engaged with the show, wanting to ask for help and get tips for making the recipe of the day.

Episode 6: Poirot

In this episode, we learn a little about Zott’s childhood. Zott was first introduced to chemistry through her brother, who lit pistachios on fire with a match to dramatize their priest father’s sermons to the congregation. Her brother was gay and tormented by their father, driving him to ultimately commit suicide. Beyond this, we never learn anything more about Zott and we never see much character development for Mad. Instead, the series instead focuses on Zott’s role and influence as a famous cooking show host and Mad’s quest to discover the history, upbringing, and academic journey of her dead father.

We see glimpses of Zott using her role to “do good.” Zott encourages a housewife in the audience of her show to become a doctor or surgeon. Zott refuses to go against her values and does not promote the show’s sponsor “Swift and Crisp” because she does not believe in the product. On live TV, Zott promotes the local protest spearheaded by her neighbor and friend, Sloane. Zott attends the protest, and we see a glimpse of police brutality against men and women of color trying to save their neighborhood. Each of these glimpses lacks depth and remains a superficial side-story sewn into the backdrop of the main story.

Mad takes the main story on an adventure to uncover the mystery behind the genius chemist, Calvin Evans, who died too soon. Mad and Wakely continue to investigate leads into Evans’s story. Mad finds a letter from a pen-pal of Evans. We discover that Wakely and Evans knew each other.

Episode 7: Book of Calvin

The entirety of Episode 7 focuses on Calvin Evans’s story. In 1930, Evans is a young boy at St. John’s Orphanage. He demonstrates great promise and intelligence for science at a young age. In 1948, he starts working at Hastings Laboratory. While giving a lecture at Harvard University, Evans impacts Reverand Wakely, prompting him to debate his research in the context of religion. The two exchange letters and debate their ideas for years. In Wakely’s opinion, science is the how, religion is the why. The two become friends and discuss their lives as the years go on. Wakely encourages Evans to date, saying that he should “stay open to unknown variables because no one is best alone.” In 1951, Evans meets Zott and writes to Wakely about her. Evans goes to pick out an engagement ring for Zott and gets her a one-of-a-kind ring. Zott moves in with Evans after Christmas. Evans shares his fear of proposing in a letter to Wakely, but he responds that he should not overthink it. As Evans and Zott live together, he begins opening up to her more and more. One day Zott tells him that she never wants to get married or have kids, so he doesn’t ask her to marry him. The next day, Evans goes for his morning run and dies. Wakely’s last letter to Evans never makes it to Evans as it is marked and sent back as “Return to Sender.”

In 1958, Wakely gives seven-year-old Mad the letters he has from Evans. Zott and Mad go to St. John’s to find out more about Evans. The priest there says he doesn’t recognize the name, Calvin Evans, and claims that all records from 1921 to 1939 were lost in a fire. Mad insists that the priest is lying to them and runs to the library to find out for herself. Mad and Zott find a book that Evans checked out in the past. The book has a Remsen Foundation stamp on it.

Episode 8: Introduction to Chemistry

In the final episode of Lessons In Chemistry, each plot line is tied off with a happy, convenient, or obvious bow. Zott contacts the Remsen Foundation and finds out why Evans had been funded his whole life by the Remsen Foundation. Unbeknownst to Evans, the Remsen Foundation was established by his mother, Avery Parker, who never wanted to abandon him as a child. Parker was 16 when she had Evans and her parents gave him away. When she turned 25 and inherited her trust fund, she started the Remsen Foundation to sponsor boys at orphanages. When she finally found Evans, he was an adult and did not believe she was his mother. Now that Zott and Parker have met, Parker takes and interest in Zott and Mad.

Zott’s support of the protest results in Swift and Crisp pulling their funding from Supper at Six, so Zott finds a new sponsor: Tampax. Zott explains menstruation on live TV then steps down from the show. Sloane’s efforts to save her neighborhood fail, and the freeway motion passes. We never see any resolution or future prospects for Sloane. Instead, fast-forward into the future, with Zott’s newfound connection to research funding, we see Zott TAing introductory chemistry because she has decided to go back to school to get her Ph.D. All ends well for Zott.

If you know me, and know my story, you might understand why Lessons In Chemistry pisses me off. The journey for women in male-dominated Ph.D. programs is often filled with horror stories. My first Ph.D. program certainly was a horror story. The story where a woman is chased out of one Ph.D. program to spend years of self-reflection and healing only to return to a second Ph.D. program is not a common one. Nor is it an easy one. Nor does it spur from the fanciful life progression where she lands a well-paid TV show gig and then discovers family ties to a fortune!

I’m disappointed that we never learn about Zott’s story in full. She is the main character of this story, yet I don’t know anything about her as a person. What were her early educational influences? What talents did she have as a young student? When did she fall in love with chemistry? How did she make it to her Ph.D. program at UCLA? What was her healing journey like during her seven years of motherhood that motivated her to go back? What are her future ambitions and what does she hope to accomplish with her Ph.D. in chemistry?

I’m disappointed that for Zott as a character, chemistry was just an accessory. An accessory rolled into dough and baked to “perfection,” sprinkled with a love story, a mystery, and the undercooked tales of others—like Sloane—to appear diverse, interesting, and relevant. I would much rather know the true trials, tribulations, and triumphs of academic research and graduate school from actual chemists.

In short, Lessons In Chemistry lacks substance. Lord knows I never give much of my time to something that lacks substance, depth, or willingness to grow.

I will say though, that some of Lessons In Chemistry did capture ideas worth noting. Ideas that echo what I’ve learned as I gave myself space and time to heal, restored my soul, and tried again:

  • Life is too short to be afraid of going after the things you want. A relationship, a career, a big move. Take risks. Make mistakes. Fail. And don’t be afraid to get up again, dust yourself off, and try again. It’s 100% worth it.
  • Sure, it might be hard, scary, or uncomfortable. But you can’t let fear stop you from living. You’ll miss the beautiful moments and experiences life has to offer.
  • Always strive to be the best version of yourself. Kill them with kindness. Be healthy. Be patient with yourself as you learn how to do this. Take time to heal. Grow. But don’t forget to live. Life is always happening. No one is perfect, and everyone is learning how to do better.
  • Don’t shut out the people in your life, and new people you may meet on your journey, who see you. You might be surprised by the patience and grace they are willing to hold for you.