Lee Eisenberg On Adapting ‘Lessons In Chemistry’ For Television

Lee Eisenberg—a writer on 'The Office' and currently nominated for an Emmy for his work on 'Jury Duty'—talks about the challenge of adapting a novel "a little scary in terms of how good it is" for the new series staring Brie Larson.

Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry. Apple TV+

Bonnie Garmus’s 2022 novel Lessons in Chemistry was an immediate hit thanks largely to its compelling protagonist Elizabeth Zott. In the novel, Elizabeth transitions from brilliant chemist to cooking show host during a time of repression for women in the 1960s. The story, which flips back and forth through time, felt ripe for adaptation, so it’s no surprise that the novel was optioned before it even hit shelves. A limited series, also titled Lessons in Chemistry, will premiere on October 13 on Apple (AAPL) TV+ with the first two of eight episodes. It stars Brie Larson as Elizabeth, who takes the character on a transformative journey that largely mirror’s Garmus’s tale. 

To adapt the novel for the screen, the producers looked to Lee Eisenberg, a longtime writer on The Office and the creator of Little America, WeCrashed, and Jury Duty. Eisenberg, who is currently nominated for an Emmy for Jury Duty, wrote the series pilot and partnered with his wife, Emily Fox, for two subsequent episodes, while Elissa Karasik wrote the remainder. Observer spoke with Eisenberg about how he approached the novel, his love for Elizabeth, and casting a pivotal canine character. 

Lee Eisenberg Emily Jane Fox

How did you come to be the person who would adapt this book?

Michael Costigan, at Jason Bateman’s production company, found the book and brought it to Brie Larson. This was before I was involved. Wife read the book once it had come out, very early on. My wife, who is a journalist and much smarter on these things, said, “This is a TV series. You need to read this and you need to call Apple.” I have a deal with Apple and I’ve now done a few shows there. I started reading the book that night, and just started tearing through it. I was so taken with the dialogue that exploded off of the page and the story. I fell in love with Elizabeth Zott. I just thought the character was so slyly funny and vulnerable and strong and steely and inspirational. I saw everything that my wife saw in it. 

I had never done this before, but I cold-called my executives at Apple and said, “I don’t know if there’s anything to do on the show, but I would like to be involved in some way possible. Please consider me.” At the time, they were looking for a writer so the timing worked out. I was on a Zoom with Brie a day later and we went off to the races.

So Brie was always going to play Elizabeth?

Yeah and she’s an executive producer of the show. She is astounding. I’ve watched every episode 30 times probably and both her and Lewis Pullman—he plays Calvin—are amazing. I’m so proud and kind of awestruck by our cast at every turn. But the show is really anchored by Brie. We threw so much at her and she pulls it off with such seeming ease. 

There’s a lot of complexity to the story. Where did you start with the adaptation? 

One of the North Stars for us was this idea that life does not always go according to plan. Life is unexpected. When you find Elizabeth at the beginning of the story she has her walls up. And as the story goes on, you very much understand why she does. But Elizabeth is a scientist and when a scientist is in their lab they don’t want any outside contaminants coming in or unknown variables that can possibly do anything to change the results of the experiment. In a way, that’s the way that Elizabeth is living her life. When you have walls up, you don’t suffer loss, you don’t suffer heartbreak— all of these things that are negatives, that are the hardest moments of our lives. If you don’t allow people in, you don’t experience those things. Now, the flip side of that is it’s much harder to experience love, it’s much harder to experience friendship. I think that’s part of Elizabeth’s journey.

How did you tap into Elizabeth’s very particular voice?

Bonnie’s writing a little scary in terms of how good it is. It’s actually a little daunting for me. So I pulled wherever I could from the book. I would go back to the source material because it was so strong. And also there are so many rabid fans of this material that I wanted to make sure they really felt this was an extension of the book that they’d fallen in love with. Once we felt like we had the tone from the book we could create the lines. By the end with the way that Brie was delivering the lines, we felt like we were able to really speak in Elizabeth’s voice.

She feels like someone you oddly want to be friends with. 

She is such an interesting character. I think that she would give you the best advice because it would be slightly dispassionate. She’s very matter of fact, she’s incredibly smart, she’s very thoughtful. I think what Elizabeth does is she sees the best in you. So she’s able to see the best in someone and inspire people to rise to the occasion. That’s something that you’ve very much want in a friend.

Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry. Apple TV+

What were the challenges involved with telling a story of this scope? 

We had our production challenges because we asked so much of Brie. She had to be a brilliant scientist, working in a lab and sitting across from professors and speaking minutes of science jargon. She had to look like an exceptional chef. She had to learn how to row. All of these things you take for granted watching, like “Oh wow, what a beautiful montage of her cooking.” Or, “Oh wow, she’s rowing this boat and she looks great.” That is hours of her with instructors out on the water, learning a new skill. 

We wanted it to be as ambitious as possible at all times. The story was so vast, and the past informs the present. The book does a great job of playing around with time and we leaned even further into it. With a limited series you want every episode to be something where someone can say, “Did you see the one where…?” and you immediately know what it is. It can’t be that there are three episodes in the middle that are just filler. Every episode was declarative. Every episode has a “The one where…” idea and once we had those ideas we worked backwards from that. 

What was the most fun part of making the show?

I will say for the people that spent a large time on set it was having so much food around. But honestly I think the community on this show really came together. Everyone was so inspired by the source material and loved these characters so dearly that there was a lot of passion and care. I have a cameo in episode three, and the amount of time that they spent on my costume and my fitting was amazing. I looked in the mirror and I felt like a different person. The fact that we were able to create this whole world is just such a testament to the cast and the crew. It felt like some of the themes of the show were really permeating our set.

Brie Larson (and Gus, left) in Lessons in Chemistry. Apple TV+

The show has a very cute dog in it. Who is he?

The dog’s name is Gus. You don’t just find a Gus. You audition 20 dogs and you see their ability to be around a set with 200 people and to follow commands. Working with dogs is incredibly challenging. In the book, the dog is very much a character. The story is often told from the dog’s point of view. So how do you translate that and how do you make this dog feel not like just the family pet but really connect to the entire family and connect to the other characters? That was a real challenge and you needed a dog who was a good actor. So, for your consideration: Gus.

Did you make this before or after Jury Duty?

Jury Duty was shooting at the same time we were making Lessons in Chemistry. It really was a weird pairing. 

Does this series tonally feel like a new step for you? 

I wrote almost solely comedy for the first 15 or so years of my career. And then I did a show called Little America, which is this immigrant anthology series, and that show really definitely had comedy in it, but was more dramatic. It was really driven by the stories of these characters that I wanted to connect to and I wanted to feel something from. From there I did WeCrashed, which had plenty of comedy, but, really, it was about connecting to [the characters]. Jury Duty is such a departure if you look at WeCrashed and Lessons in Chemistry, but it is [also] really about connecting to characters and finding the humanity in all of it. 

So the shows on their face might feel different, but my guiding light as a writer and a creator and what inspires me is having characters that I root for, that inspire others, that see the best in humanity and use their flaws and understanding how they came to be. I love comedy and everything I work on, but really more than anything I want people to feel something as they watch.

Is there a possibility of a second season of Lessons in Chemistry?

We’re not talking about a second season right now. I suppose if somebody came to me with a brilliant idea and Apple and everyone was excited to do it, we would certainly entertain it.

The first two episodes of “Lessons in Chemistry” premiere on AppleTV+ on October 13th, with new episodes weekly until November 24th.


Lee Eisenberg On Adapting ‘Lessons In Chemistry’ For Television