It’s pretty likely that both your parents and grandparents had one of Julia Child’s books in their cookbook collection. Mastering The Art Of French Cooking made the cuisine of France accessible to the steak-and-potatoes American public, and her public television cooking series popularized the “dump and stir” brand of cooking show that still is around 60 years later; there would be no Rachael Ray, for instance, without Julia Child. A new series on HBO Max details Child’s rise to stardom and the hurdles that she had to get over to get there.
JULIA: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Snow falls outside while we zoom in on a picture window, in an apartment where a dinner party is being held. “Oslo, Norway. 1961.”
The Gist: Julia Child (Sarah Lancashire) is throwing the party with her husband Paul Child (David Hyde Pierce), a diplomat who works at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo. During their time in Paris, Julia learned the ins and outs of French cuisine, and that knowledge has paid off; Paul and their guests encourage Julia to read the glowing letter from Knopf, the company publishing the French cookbook she wrote with Simone Beck (Isabella Rossellini).
When Paul gets a call from the State Department, he thinks they’re being transferred back to Paris. Instead, we see the couple in their Cambridge, Mass. home a year later. Paul’s been forced to retire, and he spends his time painting still life scenes. Meanwhile, Julia is trying to write a follow-up to her hit cookbook, and is struggling to find recipes that the average American housewife (it is 1962, after all) can follow and recreate.
Then she is asked on a book show on the local Boston public television station, WGBH. She asks Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) the producer who booked her, to get her a hot plate, which she gets from already skeptical station manager Russ Morash (Fran Kranz). Instead of talking about the book with the dismissive academic who is the show’s host, she instead cooks an omelet right on the tiny coffee table between their chairs, unashamed to fumble around on camera to find an outlet for the hotplate.
She has a victory dinner with Paul and her editor and friend Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), who chides Paul for not watching the show. It’s not because Paul is jealous (well, maybe a little), but mostly because he is disdainful of TV and doesn’t own a television set. Julia embraces the medium so much she wants to buy the set, but Paul refuses to pay for one.
Still struggling with the follow-up book, Julia writes a letter to Naman, pitching a cooking show. Naman invites her to the office (Julia bakes a simple but sinful chocolate cake) to tell her that she’s on to something — they got 27 letters in response to her book show interview, which is a lot — but Morash thinks it’s beneath a public television station to have a cooking show.
Julia barrels into Morash’s office with the cake, offering to pay for the production of a pilot herself, and a big piece of cake Russ and the other station executives if they say yes. She enlists another editor and friend, Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), to not only convince Paul to get on board but to help shape the show into something they’d both be proud of.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? While watching Julia, we couldn’t help but make comparisons to the 2009 film Julie & Julia, where none other than Meryl Streep played Julia Child. Of course, Julia concentrates solely on Child’s marriage and career; there’s no 21st century Amy Adams equivalent in this series. It’s themes and lighthearted nature, though, strangely reminds us of another recent HBO Max series, Minx.
Our Take: There are a bunch of themes running through Julia, created by Daniel Goldfarb, with Christopher Keyser serving as showrunner. There’s the idea that Child helped change the way America cooked and ate in the ’60s, by introducing French cuisine to the meat-and-potatoes masses. There’s also the theme that, in her own way, Child was on the forefront of the feminism movement. There’s also the idea of reinvention, with Child becoming an unlikely TV star at 50, who is already going through the emotional and physical roller coaster that is menopause.
But for a show that is exploring some seemingly weighty themes, Julia has as light a touch as we’ve seen from a streaming “prestige” series in quite awhile. Sure, there’s going to be some tension and conflict in the series, but it does feel like whatever of that there is won’t really generate a whole lot of drama. It’s because Child’s career in the public eye was pretty steady from the publication of her first book to her death in 2004. If there were any lulls or down times, we weren’t aware of them.
What we suspect is that a lot of the drama is going to come from Paul Child learning to live with his wife in the spotlight after decades of him being the more public figure. With regards to that, David Hyde Pierce puts on his usual nuanced performance, showing Paul as wholly supportive but with the usual small reservations that anyone who is used to being in the foreground gets when he’s been shunted to the background.
We hope to see more examination of Child’s relationships with the women in her life — Naman, DeVoto and Jones. All three are instrumental in her rise, and these relationships are going to be the underpinning of a series that will hopefully tell us a different aspect of Child’s story that we don’t already know.
We appreciated that Lancashire’s didn’t try to do a Julia Child impression and just made the famous TV cook her own thing. You have to keep in mind that Julia Child was 6’2? with a deep voice and an accent that has been parodied in pop culture for decades. Just as Streep avoided caricature in Julie & Julia, Lancashire embodies Child in a way that we can see her as the cooking legend, even though we know that’s not how she looked and sounded in real life.
Sex and Skin: Julia and Paul kiss, which shows us that the longtime couple still had a lot of passion between them.
Parting Shot: After earning her first residual payment for her cookbook, Julia goes to Jordan Marsh and buys a TV. Facing the wall of televisions for sale, she imagines her face on all of them.
Sleeper Star: Brittany Bradford holds her own as Naman, who pushes her boss to at least give the idea of a show with Child a chance.
Most Pilot-y Line: None that we could find.
Our Call: STREAM IT. If you don’t expect a lot of conflict or high drama, you should be able to sit back and enjoy Julia for the light, fun biography it’s intended to be.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.