Film & Television

‘Julia,’ A New Series Worth Savoring

When you think about larger-than-life television personalities, there are few quite so large or so filled with life as Julia Child. The “French Chef” has been portrayed affectionately by Meryl Streep (2009’s Julie and Julia) and irreverently by Dan Aykroyd (on a 1978 episode of SNL). She is single-handedly credited with raising the bar for American home-cooking, freeing households everywhere from the subpar, unappetizing options of TV dinners and tuna casserole.

Here in Boston, Child was frequently sighted for decades near her home in Cambridge and at fundraisers, as well as at restaurants of every style and price point. Famously generous with her praise, she often asked to speak to the chef and kitchen crew after a memorable meal. I can only imagine how delightful those meetings must have been. As we’ve come to understand her, whether from her long-running series on PBS, two bestselling volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Noel Riley Fitch and Bob Spitz’s excellent biographies, her own memoirs, or the depictions I mentioned above, Child’s response to food (and life) was pure delight. She had an adventurous spirit and an insatiable appetite.

“People who love to eat are always the best people,” she assured us, even as some ingredient or other fell on the floor. “Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually, one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile and learn from her mistakes.”

Child’s life falls neatly into chapters: her youth, her work overseas for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA), her work as a cookbook author, and her years as the grande dame of television cooking shows. HBO’s new series Julia focuses on the beginning of that fourth chapter, illuminating the obstacles, as well as the triumphs, facing a middle-aged woman in the early 1960s who is trying to create something new.

After a guest appearance on a pretentious public television show called “What I’ve Been Reading” proves an unexpected success, Julia pitches a cooking program. The mostly male WGBH producers dismiss the idea, alluding to her less than camera-ready appearance. But Julia declares, “One of the advantages of looking like me is that you learn at a young age not to take no for an answer.” “No offense,” one of the producers insists, “But is this what we really think public television should be doing?” Julia, undeterred, offers to pay for the pilot. And television history is, if not quite made, off to its shaky start.

There’s a lot going on in the eight one-hour episodes of Julia. Each is named after one of her signature dishes, starting with a simple “Omelette,” moving through favorites “Coq Au Vin,” “Boeuf Bourguinon,” “Crêpes Suzette,” and eventually wrapping up the season with “Chocolate Soufflé.” 

The series is rich with period detail, investing the same level of care and vintage authenticity we’ve come to expect from series like Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In fact, Julias showrunner, Daniel Goldfarb, comes from the Maisel creative team. In describing his latest heroine, Goldfarb told the Toronto Star, “She invented the modern cooking show as we know it. She is guileless, a teacher at heart . . .  has that twinkle. Doing it all on the other side of 50. But she is also full of contradictions, which is why she was so fun to write. On one hand, she is a very determined woman of a certain age who did it her way and was very forward with her thinking . . . some might see her as a feminist. But she did it by putting on these pearls, standing behind a counter, giving a kind of 1950s housewife [performance].” The writing, like the art direction, is superb.

However, the best thing about Julia — or should I say, the pièce de résistance — is its formidable cast. 

Sarah Lancashire is known for her work in UK soaps and the BBC series Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, as well as a small but important role in the Beatles fantasy Yesterday. As Julia, she wonderfully balances the real person’s eccentricities with heartfelt and deeply human emotion. Evidenced by Aykroyd (and to some extent Streep), it’s easy to slip into caricature imitating Child’s distinct falsetto voice and constant joie de vivre. But, Lancashire’s acting never feels cartoonish; she becomes, rather than impersonates, Julia.

Here, the “French Chef” (who, it’s pointed out early on, is neither French nor technically a chef) is dealing with some bigger issues as well as culinary ones. She goes to the doctor, complaining of night sweats and a diminished sex drive, and is told that she’s a healthy woman going through the change. Rather than reassure her, the diagnosis triggers a deep sadness. If it’s for the family she won’t have or because she recognizes that her life is half over isn’t explained, but the reaction rings true. A visit from her father (James Cromwell) provides a glimpse of longstanding familial tension. “Be a lady,” he admonishes her when she offers to help with his luggage. “I am a lady,” she says, “Just not your type. But that’s okay.”

As Paul Child, David Hyde Pierce is more petulant and less besotted than Stanley Tucci was in Julie and Julia. Forced to take early retirement, he paints, smokes, demands Julia’s attention, and criticizes what he sees as a banal invention for the masses: television. This puts Julia in a rather awkward position as she sets her sights on establishing herself through that very medium. With some manipulation, a bit of subterfuge, and the assistance of a core group of female supporters, Julia is able to change his mind.

Women pulling strings to achieve their objectives in a male-dominated world is a running theme in Julia’s first few episodes. Whether it’s best friend Avis (Bebe Neuwirth, perfect as usual) getting a gallery-owner to offer Paul a show and thereby a distraction. Or, editor Judith (Fiona Glascott, very fine) convincing John Updike (Bryce Pinkham) to appear on “What I’ve Been Reading,” so its host (Jefferson Mays) will stop complaining about Child’s new show. Or, associate producer Alice (Brittany Bradford, relative newcomer in a memorable role) working five times harder and being ten times smarter than the men she reports to. And Judith Light appears to be having great fun as publisher and straight-talker Blanche Knopf. (“It’s pronounced K-Nopf.”)

You can choose to watch Julia for its splendid ensemble cast, terrific leading lady, evocative art direction, or for all the recipes, both inspirational and aspirational. Regardless, you’ll find something to savor.

Bon appétit!

 

The first four episodes of Julia are avilable on HBO and HBO Max. New episodes will be available on Thursdays through May 5.

 

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.