Julia Child was born nearly a hundred and ten years ago, in 1912, in Pasadena, California. Ninety-one years later, after a remarkably eventful life, her body expired, but her fame — her wisdom, her persona, her point of view — kept growing. Child today remains the grande dame of American gastronomy, a towering icon against whom few can compare in stature and influence. It helps that the story of Child’s life has inherent narrative pull: a headstrong, inelegantly tall girl from a wealthy family throws in with government service, as part of the OSS, the foreign-intelligence operation that would evolve into the modern CIA She falls extravagantly in love with a fellow-operative, Paul Child. He’s stationed in France, and she — nearly forty and previously inexpert in the kitchen — begins taking cooking classes to fill the time while he, presumably, spies. Then comes her debut book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” a 1961 blockbuster, followed by a WGBH series that changed the face of television. Eventually, there were more Julia Child books than a shelf of normal dimensions could hold, plus hundreds of hours of tape showing Child cooking this and that in a studio kitchen as she narrates amiably to the camera — her intelligent, goofy charisma emanating from the screen .
Almost everyone, by now, knows the gist of this story. There have been biographies, anthologies, documentaries, special issues of magazines, children’s books, blogs, “SNL” homages, and her kitchen — not a replica, the real thing — was installed in the Smithsonian. Plus, of course, there was a big, glossy movie: “Julie & Julia,” from 2009, in which Meryl Streep was at her Meryl Streepiest, embodying Child’s idiosyncratic allure. And now, for those who have not yet had their fill, there is a big, glossy television show, streaming on HBO Max. Titled simply “Julia,” it is a scripted series that concerns itself with the early days of Child’s television career, after she and Paul left the OSS, and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paul (David Hyde Pierce) paints and studies judo. Julia (Sarah Lancashire) bickers via phone with her Parisian co-author, Simone Beck (Isabella Rossellini, hilarious and near-unrecognizable in a blond wig), about writing the second volume of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” After making a brief, charmingly disruptive guest appearance on a local public television show to promote Volume I, Julia realizes that television is the future. She pitches an instructional cooking show, offering to pay for the pilot herself; the rest is history — and also plot.
We know, here in the future, that Child’s show, “The French Chef,” is going to achieve astonishing success, and pioneer a new era in both public television and cooking television. So “Julia,” in need of narrative tension, focuses on all the things that might have come in the way of that. The show’s Julia faces opposition at every turn. Despite her legions of fans, her television producers do not take her show seriously. Despite her huge sales figures, her publisher considers her books unimportant. Despite a love between her and Paul so deep that, at times, they go to bed in matching pajamas, he is envious that her career is flourishing as his has faded away. The show-within-the-show is a chaotic undertaking, and “Julia”’s montages of scrappy creativity are tremendously fun. Making the show of her dreams is an all-hands endeavor, requiring a specialized set with working appliances and running water, the development of new filming techniques to make instructional cooking dazzle onscreen, and a sizable volunteer cohort to take care of the grocery shopping and behind-the-scenes prop handling. “The French Chef” is a stunning success, and Julia glows with a sense of accomplishment and usefulness. Still, she is worn out by a relentless production schedule owing to meaty syndication deals with public television stations in other cities. The chief antagonist, in a story based on a life marked by an endlessly upward trajectory, is success itself.
“Julia” was set in the early nineteen-sixties, when the civil-rights movement was already thriving and the seeds of the women-liberation movement were beginning to grow. The gravity of the era’s social upheaval is set up, on the show, in moral opposition to Julia’s career, which is repeatedly dismissed as too domestic, too frivolous. Her producer, Russell Morash (Fran Kranz), complains to his station head that he’d rather be working on a series about “something that matters”; in the following episode, the formidable book publisher Blanche Knopf (Judith Light, exquisite) rips into her protégée, the legendary Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), for wasting her talent editing Child’s cookbooks, when she could be elbow-deep in Updike. This is a rich source of tension, onscreen and off — is success the same as significance? —But on “Julia” the unimpeachable virtue of the protagonist’s contributions is always a foregone conclusion. As Child moves through the world, she encounters a cavalcade of period-appropriate celebrities who neatly make the case for one side of the debate or the other. James Beard (Christian Clemenson) relishes the physical pleasures of cuisine. Betty Friedan (an impeccably hostile Tracee Chimo Pallero) disdains Julia’s elevation of the domestic. After Morash petitions for a show with more social impact, his boss points out that the success of “The French Chef” is paying for the station’s political journalism. “So really, you are working on civil rights, ”he says. Was any of this how it really happened? Does it even matter? As in any bio-pic, the Julia of “Julia” is a character, not a person, and her life story is bent in service of an eight-episode arc.
Lancashire, who plays Julia, is a brilliant British actress who won a BAFTA for playing a tragedy-scarred cop in “Happy Valley.” Her Julia is intelligent and irreverent, a solid physical presence with a properly swooping, warbly voice, but she has little of the sharp-edged jubilance that Streep brought to the big screen. The drama in “Julia” all but demands that the character have a softness and passivity, a prominent vein of insecurity born of being perpetually underestimated by those around her. The character’s sense of purpose seems to wax and wane chaotically, depending on whom she’s most recently clashed with. Child’s great feats of charisma (in life as well as in the world of the show) —such as attracting an entourage of die-hard friends (including the radiant Bebe Neuwirth as Avis DeVoto) and fast-talking a skeptical WGBH producer into green- lighting the show — happen offscreen. Her most pronounced moments of self-possession arise from her relationship with Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford), a fictional young producer at WGBH who appears to be the only woman — and the only Black person — in an office of interchangeable white men. Alice gets her own plotline, a sweet little arc of professional ambition running up against romantic prospects, with Julia serving as a bit of a fairy godmother. The real-life Julia was remarkably progressive on social-justice issues for a woman of her class and era, but there is something glib about the Alice story line, as if the show created “Julia” to create a Black woman, whole cloth, just for its heroine to mentor.
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Julia Child superfans affronted by the liberties that “Julia” takes will find something more straightforwardly hagiographic on basic cable. In “The Julia Child Challenge,” a culinary competition that debuted on the Food Network in March, Child is brought back to viewers as a game-show host. Through clever editing of her television footage, the series’ creators have Child preside over an elimination-style reality show from a massive projection screen, like the Great and Powerful Oz in a chambray apron. The result is an uncanny transplant of the traditional stand-and-stir cooking show into the new era of “Chopped,” “Top Chef,” and their brethren: culinary instruction repurposed for culinary combat. As Child trills out directions in black-and-white, contestants fillet whole flounders, shuck oysters, and break down chickens. The set is constructed in homage to her famous home kitchen, with pegboard walls and copper cookware.