Formulas rule our lives, whether we acknowledge their impact or not. Fall, for instance, demands a return to comforts like rich foods, nourishing stories and the warmth of companionship, perhaps from a well-behaved pet. We return to familiar patterns, i.e. formulas, whenever the season rolls around again, and each homecooked habit involves a symphony of molecular reactions designed to produce a desired outcome.
“Lessons in Chemistry” opens with such an experiment as thwarted chemist turned celebrated TV host Elizabeth Zott (played by Brie Larson) shows her audience how to cook lasagna using “a new variable.”
Elizabeth trusts science and her mastery of it, and she wants her audience to apply its principles in those home laboratories known as kitchens. For 1950s housewives, Elizabeth’s show, “Supper at Six,” affirmed their intelligence, original thinking and the worthiness of their efforts, natural traits that sexist male chemists in Elizabeth’s field invalidated when she and her partner, Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), struggled to have their groundbreaking research taken seriously.
Based on the 2022 bestseller by Bonnie Garmus, “Lessons in Chemistry” has an array of ways to hook you, not the least of which is its canine star Gus, playing Elizabeth’s loyal pooch Six Thirty. Primarily, of course, it’s Larson, Pullman and Aja Naomi King, who plays Elizabeth’s confidante and neighbor Harriet, who maintain the narrative simmer throughout the season. This energy exchange reflects what drew showrunner and executive producer Lee Eisenberg to Garmus’ book, to which he was introduced by his wife.
“I was really just taken with the writing,” Eisenberg told Salon in a recent interview, “and I devoured it, I think over the course of a day or two.” Fans of Eisenberg’s other work can understand that compulsion. Though he’s best known for “The Office,” Eisenberg’s most recent coup was co-creating “Jury Duty” with his frequent collaborator Gene Stupnitsky.
“Lessons in Chemistry” would seem to require entirely different applications than a soft-scripted improvisational reality show, but as Eisenberg explained in a wide-ranging interview, the common element is the excitability factor. In our conversation, we also discussed the drama’s interpretation of home cooking as seen on TV, got the inside scoop on the show’s furriest secret ingredient and much more.
Lessons in Chemistry (Apple TV+)The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
I’m sure you’ve probably gotten this question several times already, but I must know the answer: How does one go from “Jury Duty” to “Lessons in Chemistry”? It’s quite the transition.
Isn’t it? You know, it’s funny. I’ve been writing professionally for 18 years, and I started on “The Office.” My focus for so long was comedy, and then in the last five or so years, I did “Jury Duty.” I did a show called “Little America” for Apple, which was an immigrant anthology series. I did “WeCrashed,” and now, “Lessons in Chemistry.” I get excited about a project, and then I just kind of chase it . . . I’m writing a thriller right now. I think I’m kind of genre-agnostic. If the idea excites me and I think that I have a way in, then I kind of want to chase it.
I’m a lifelong home chef. Part of the reason for that is when I was growing up, I watched a lot of Julia Child. Whenever the culinary arts are portrayed, what has really foregrounded me more than anything else is the joy of it. One of the things that stuck out to me in “Lessons in Chemistry” was the speech that Elizabeth makes to her producer saying, “This is not fun: Cooking is work — it is worthwhile work.”
Can you speak about how the tone is informed, in terms of finding this balance between cooking as something joyful and something that can be very nostalgic in a way and the real sense that it is work?
So much of that came from the book. And I was really inspired by Elizabeth from Bonnie’s novel — that she is so matter of fact, and she approaches the world that way. She’s so smart, but she’s closed herself off. She has put up walls at the beginning of the show, and as the show unravels, you understand why.
She goes to work every day, and the men in the lab don’t. They just don’t respect her. They’re not aggressively mistreating her — it’s subtle sexism, I would say. She’s the one who gets the coffee for them, and nobody ever really engages her as a chemist. She has to do her work at night and skulk around in the darkness.
“What was most important to me was the way that people just take for granted the fact that a woman comes home and cooks these meals.”
The first time that we see her cook at home: It’s really the first time you’ve seen the character calm, and the music changes. It’s almost meditative for her, what cooking provides for her. It becomes the way that she connects with Calvin. Then, ultimately, it’s the reason that she gets hired on “Supper at Six,” and it’s kind of the conduit to connect with her audience.
It’s interesting as you say that line. I don’t know that she thinks of it as fun. I don’t know what Elizabeth thinks is fun, but I think she thinks it’s important. I think she thinks that it’s essential, and I think what was most important to me was the way that people just take for granted the fact that a woman comes home and cooks these meals.
I remember being a kid and complaining all the time . . . There are certain dishes I like, and “why are you making this?” Now, I love to cook, also. And the idea of . . . you’re the chef and people don’t appreciate the work and the effort and the thought that went into it. It so often comes from a place of like, “We’re not at a restaurant. This is something I was doing. I wanted to provide for my family and community.” And that’s so much more of where Elizabeth comes from.
There’s this idea of chemistry in cooking that is taken for granted and that is really brought forward in this book. I’m wondering if there were discussions about striking that tone between presenting a show about a chemist and [depicting] a cooking show.
Look, I think that Elizabeth is both things, and she’s both things from the beginning. She’s a chemist, and she’s a cook. And the way that she approaches it is what we did in the pilot: She’s working on a lasagna recipe, and she’s doing it like it’s a science experiment. She’s conducted the experiment 78 times . . . and Elizabeth is someone who thinks that if there are no kinds of outside variables or contaminants, you can achieve perfection.
The pilot is bookended by the “Supper at Six” episodes, and we really wanted to introduce that as part of the show. She’s this amazing chef — we’ve seen her make these amazing dishes for Calvin throughout. Then she burns the lasagna, and she uses it as a teachable moment with her audience. You go through life and . . . you’ve planned and you’ve prepared and you’ve done everything right, but sometimes you burn the lasagna. Sometimes, life doesn’t go the way you planned. And how do you build yourself back up from that? What happens when you suffer loss or you experience grief or adversity comes into your life? Some people buckle from it, some people can’t stand back up. Some people are hardened by it, some people find refuge elsewhere. All of that is kind of a jumping-off point for where the series goes.
Lessons in Chemistry (Apple TV+)My understanding is that the character of Harriet was created for the series. Is that right?
Can you talk about the importance of this and what you wanted to do? “Julia” did something similar to remind people of the reality that in the ’50s, the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to blossom and was this discordant aspect of life going on behind the scenes of this very graceful show that was teaching America how to cook.
Yes, absolutely. It really came about from casting. Aja Naomi King is an incredible actress. We were considering her for another role, and we hadn’t yet cast Harriet.
Harriet is a very important role in the in the book. She’s never kind of described using race, but I think the audience took her to be a mid-50s white woman in an abusive relationship who happens to be a neighbor. As we started talking about where we wanted to take the series, I started having this idea of what if Harriet became this Black woman who lives across the street from Elizabeth in this predominantly Black neighborhood and she’s a lawyer.
As we started doing research about that time, we found this neighborhood called Sugar Hill, which is in Los Angeles. The producers and the other writers, you know, we’ve all lived in LA for so long, and we didn’t know the history of this neighborhood. And it was fascinating. This predominately black neighborhood was filled with doctors and lawyers and some of the biggest entertainers of that time who fought to preserve their neighborhood against this racist bureaucracy that had plans to basically put the 10 freeway directly through it.
“It was really important to us that Elizabeth isn’t always on the right side of history for every moment of the show.”
And putting a fictional character like Harriet, who, like Elizabeth, is pushing up against the system, and because of her race is actually in even more of a deficit than Elizabeth is . . . We thought it was really interesting to show it through a different lens of this Black woman who was also fighting to save her neighborhood. As the series goes on, we get to a place where, you know, Elizabeth is making strides. She’s on a pulpit, and she has a real audience and women are listening to her. And she thinks that she’s making great changes by rebelling and wearing pants on TV, which at the time was quite quite a statement.
Meanwhile, Harriet is fighting this incredibly important fight that’s so personal and so cataclysmic to her life, to her neighborhood and her community’s survival.
I love to tell stories where you see the story from different perspectives. When Elizabeth is wearing pants, it’s an act of rebellion. And then she calls Harriet with this news, and you see that Harriet is going through her own thing and her friend isn’t even asking her what’s happening in her own life. Elizabeth is so proud and almost wants a pat on the back for wearing pants, and you see what Harriet is going through in that moment. And this confrontation that those characters have later in that episode really was one of the most powerful moments for me in the writing and the shooting of it.
As a person who’s been in Harriet’s situation on the phone, I felt very seen.
Oh, good. Elizabeth, you know, she’s the heroine of our series, and she’s not without faults. She needs to have growth. It was really important to us that Elizabeth isn’t always on the right side of history for every moment of the show. That was something that we really wanted to explore.
We worked incredibly closely with Dr. Shamell Bell, who was one of our consultants, who really spoke to that time and that era in the Black community. That was incredibly important to us. We pitched the Sugar Hill story to her, and then she said, “Oh, my God, here are 15 books you need to read.” . . . And then Millicent Shelton, who directed episodes five and six, was incredible when we were getting into the protest and really kind of honing into what those stories are, and what it does mean to show up.
It’s very easy to say, “I support you.” But it’s a very different thing when there are consequences . . . We wanted Harriet to say to her friend, “Who is your audience? And who are you really standing up for?” and have Elizabeth be set back on her heels a little bit.
There’s also a racial dynamic in terms of a Black woman and a white woman being friends at that time, and even the conversations that they could be having with one another, the level of honesty they could have with one another. We needed to get it right.
Let’s talk about the men in Elizabeth’s life, not just Calvin or Harriet’s husband, who are gems and wonderful. I’m also thinking about Rainn Wilson’s character, who is so overtly misogynistic. I would love to hear about your experience of writing that character. And I’m sure Rainn had lots of fun with it. He’s almost like this over-the-top caricature, and yet there’s a lot about him that feels realistic.
The show, in being truthful to the world that we were creating, is not “men are bad, women are great.” That’s not true, and that’s overly simplistic. And so, with the men in Elizabeth’s life, there are varying degrees of sh*ttiness, there are varying degrees of decency. I think having a character like Walter (Kevin Sussman), who’s going through his own struggles as a single father during that time and just trying to do the best that he can, forming this kind of unlikely friendship between the two of them was something that was really appealing to us.
Calvin’s friend — the doctor who encourages Elizabeth to get into rowing — he’s decent in his own way. And that’s a character from the book that I had fallen in love with.
Rainn Wilson is a dear friend of mine, and I was desperate to find something for him. When we first started talking about Phil, who’s in the book, I thought, “Oh, man, if Rainn is available and would even consider this, what a treat that will be.” And he knocked it out of the park.
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Phil is despicable, but you want to understand where Phil came from. I think Phil is certainly a man of his time. He’s also trying to keep a show afloat. I’m never rooting for him. I’m delighted by him at all times, but I’ve never rooted for him. But I also want to understand why — If you are running a show and your star starts making political statements during that time, what are the consequences for that? — and the fact that people are losing their jobs as he’s trying to keep his business afloat. Again, that is not making him a hero in any way, but you want to understand where he’s coming from and not simply say, “Oh, he’s an ogre.” Though he has ogre-like qualities.
And I can’t let you get away without asking about Six Thirty. I know everybody is in love with him. With any series, whenever there’s an adorable dog, I think there’s this question of whether the dog was actually as adorable as he was when action was called, mainly so that if people want to go out and get the same type of dog, they know what they’re in for. So, is Six Thirty as sweet as advertised?
Gus, the actor who plays Six Thirty, is completely lovable. And then you know, when you have a dog on set, we had a few things that gave us a little bit of advantage on set. We had a lot of food . . . We made a lot of lasagnas, and you feed the crew with the ones that don’t make it to the screen. So, the fact that the crew is well fed and the fact there’s delicious food are both incredibly important.
And then I think also having a dog that’s as lovable as Gus was on set, it just gives it a different feeling. It is incredibly challenging working with a dog, and Gus was as good as a dog can be.
The first two episodes of “Lessons in Chemistry” are now streaming on Apple TV+.
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