What to Watch This Winter

Lessons in Chemistry” — Very Good Chemistry

Class, before we begin with chemistry there is an important lesson to be learned about adapting bestsellers. “Lessons in Chemistry” was my favorite, not one of my favorites, but my favorite book of 2022, a year of many terrific reads. My feelings were mixed when I read that it was going to be made into a TV series. Why mixed? I come from a TV and film background where books are optioned and adapted and sometimes even made. The sad but true proviso is that a book, once optioned for production, enters the realm of the adapter. He or she may then do whatever they choose to with said material. In some cases, the only thing remaining is the title. The buyer now owns the rights and can pick and choose whatever they want from the book’s substance, if anything. The moral of this story is to limit your expectations on the translation of your favorite books to the screen.

That being said, “Lessons in Chemistry” is enjoyable on its own. Yes, a lot of the original concept is still present, but there are new storylines and a number of characters have changed, some for better, some for worse. The villains transcend any gray areas into full black regalia. The good guys (and gals) are dressed in impeccable whites.

Elizabeth Zott (a pitch-perfect Brie Larson) is a brilliant and beautiful young chemist who was forced to leave her Ph.D. program under circumstances not of her own making. We are dropped into the stereotypic 1950s, an era when women were less than welcome in the workforce and certainly not in professional positions. Even female doctors and lawyers were expected to take a backseat to their male colleagues. But Elizabeth doesn’t have that doctorate so the best job she can find is as a lab tech at Hastings Laboratories. Treated with disdain, despite the fact that she often corrects the work of some of her ostensible superiors, she remains aloof from the politics and the pressure to hide her light under a lab bench. She knows who she is and will not allow the condescension of others to disrupt her life. Enter Calvin Evans, the star chemist at the laboratories, often mentioned in the same breath as the term “Nobel Prize.” Calvin (an endearing Lewis Pullman), considered an oddball by his colleagues, is strongly attracted to the intellectual attributes of Elizabeth. Their eccentricities dovetail nicely and their collaboration is both professional and personal.

Calvin lives in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, home to a large, but upscale, Black population. He is very close to his neighbors the Sloanes. Harriet Sloane (Naomi King) and her children are keeping the home fires burning while Dr. Sloane is finishing his military tour. Harriet is very active in local politics, trying to save her neighborhood from the “urban renewal” the City Council is proposing. They would like the new 10 Freeway to bisect the Adams district, and in the process destroy the homes in its wake. The choice of this area is not by accident or even expedience; it’s because it is Black. Along the way, as Elizabeth becomes more connected to Calvin, she also becomes connected to his neighbors, supporting their fight.

There are heartbreaks to overcome and mysteries to be solved, both chemical and familial, as Elizabeth is shoved on a new path toward a career in public television, a brainy Julia Child so to speak, and family dramas to resolve. Telling any more would spoil some of the fun of discovering this series as something unto itself. As an adaptation of a favorite book it is disappointing; as a new series with remnants of the Elizabeth of the book and new characters, it’s a success. My advice? Enter the world of “Lessons in Chemistry” without expectations and enjoy the ride for the interesting story it is on its own. Oh…and read the book. It’s a pleasure not to be missed.

Now streaming on Apple TV+.


Gary Oldman in “Slow Horses”
Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

“Slow Horses” —Braised to Perfection

“Slow Horses,” now in its third season, is based on the MI5 (British CIA) series of books by novelist Mick Herron, none of which I’ve read. The scene was set in season one, based on “Slow Horses,” part of his series about Slough House where dead duck agents are sent to languish forever in a purgatory from which there is no escape. Led by Jackson Lamb (a spectacular Gary Oldman), a misanthropic screw-up without apparent redeeming value, this less-than-intrepid group is offered crumbs from MI5 Security boss, Diana Taverner (Kirstin Scott Thomas wearing her disdain like a Chanel suit). These crumbs, however, are usually attached to the toxic realization that there is no likely solution and that embarrassment and failure are sent to them on a daily basis to prevent the actual agency from the taint of likely disaster.

You can almost smell the slovenly Lamb before he enters a scene. His stained trench coat could stand on its own without a hanger; his hair, so stringy and matted, makes you wonder if it’s ever been washed. Although Lamb is seemingly content with his exile, the other members would love a chance to return to the main office. Each of their so-called catastrophes may or may not have been fairly attributed to them, but forgiveness is a Sisyphean task.

Season 3, even better than the previous two, can be watched as a stand-alone. Based on Herron’s book “Real Tigers,” it ramps up the action and stakes considerably. A consistent rhythm has been found and the characters have grown appreciably. Complicating matters considerably is Lady Ingrid (the always intriguing Sophie Okonedo), Diana’s much-resented boss at MI5. The tension between the two is palpable and Ingrid will stop at nothing to move the dial even more in her favor. Working closely with corrupt State’s minister Peter Judd (an effectively slimy Samuel West), Ingrid is transparent in her hunger for higher office and need to undermine Diana’s department.

River Cartwright (Jack Lowden in a star turn), an agent who was originally set up for failure by his counterpart at MI5, the appropriately named ‘Spider’ Webb (Freddie Fox), is still haunted by the missteps that brought him to Slough House. Used again, and I am unable to divulge the plot for obvious reasons, he must find a way to dig himself out of his newest hole, one that might make his relationship with Diana even worse. Jonathan Pryce makes an appearance as River’s grandfather, retired MI5 nobility declining into the early stages of dementia.

Lamb, always the skeptic, finds himself actually caring about an outcome and agrees to ally himself with Diana, if only because he despises Peter Judd, and he prefers the enemy he knows, Diana, to the one he suspects is far worse, Ingrid.

As a little tweak to a plot I am reluctant to divulge, Sean Donovan (Sope Dirisu) is on a mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend, an MI5 agent killed by MI5 in Turkey. Collateral damage in his revenge is the stalwart Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves who deserves better screen credit), a self-exiled member of Slough House.

The characters are there, the plot is complex and believable enough, and this third season, watchable as a stand-alone, is positively delicious.

Now streaming on Apple TV+.


Gemma Arterton in “Culprits”
Photo by Des Willie, courtesy of Disney

“Culprits” —Aren’t We All

This very stylish heist thriller travels back and forth in time from the inception of the caper to its consequences. The stakes are immediately evident as the first episode zooms in on a man begging for his life, crawling toward the Ferrari in the driveway of his Italian estate. Asked by the masked killer for the location of Dianne Harewood, he’s shot point blank when he can’t answer. The who, what, where and why will unfold slowly, intricately and intriguingly in eight episodes.

Dianne, as we will come to learn, has planned her own version of the heist of the century and put together her dream team to execute it. Like Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” each member shall be known only by the name Dianne (aka Brain) bestows upon them representing their respective roles in the gambit—Fixer, Right Hand, Soldier, Officer, Muscle and Driver. It is Driver we see murdered; others will meet the same fate for the same reason.

The robbery is successful; the money each receives is the stuff dreams are made of. Each member of the team scatters in the wind, but it is on Muscle that the series focuses its laser beam.

Muscle, aka Joe Petrus, was the hired gun of a prominent London gangster. When an arranged “meet” is just a setup for a hostile takeover, Joe successfully dispatches the enemy and they both walk away. It was this derring-do that brought him to Dianne’s attention. But it is not “Muscle” or even Joe Petrus that we come to know; it is Joe Patrus, American, living an idyllic life in Washington State with his partner Jules and Jules’ two children. Joe, a stay-at-home dad, dotes on those kids and will sacrifice anything to keep them safe. But even small-town life in the Pacific Northwest holds its dangers for him, always with a racist undercurrent. All he wants is to settle into domestic tranquility so he will endeavor to fly under the radar as much as possible. Easier said than done. Life in the suburbs brings its own version of hell.

Soon the masked gunman will come for him and endanger everything he has built, including his family. There was more to the robbery than he, or any of the others, was aware of and it will be up to him to untangle this labyrinth of cause and effect to save Jules and the two kids. It will lead him back to London and the surviving team. He will be beaten, kidnapped, and placed in untenable situations by both the villain of the piece and Dianne.

Gemma Arterton as Dianne is stunning. Her sang froid is admirable and she makes even the unbelievable aspects of her character work. Eddie Izzard is the secret weapon as a villain embodying the banality of evil, when he’s not sanctioning torture.

But most importantly, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is Muscle and the Joes. Handsome, electric, sympathetic, believable, it’s impossible not to concentrate on him. He plays the contradictions inherent in good and evil and he does it almost simultaneously. If he’s not already a major star, he should be. I ate this show up.

Now Streaming on Hulu. 

Neely Swanson spent most of her professional career in the television industry, almost all of it working for David E. Kelley. In her last full-time position as Executive Vice President of Development, she reviewed writer submissions and targeted content for adaptation. As she has often said, she did book reports for a living. For several years she was a freelance writer for “Written By,” the magazine of the WGA West, and was adjunct faculty at USC in the writing division of the School of Cinematic Arts. Neely has been writing film and television reviews for the “Easy Reader” for more than 10 years. Her past reviews can be read on Rotten Tomatoes where she is a tomato-approved critic.

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