HBO Max’s Julia Offers Up a Delicious Distraction

Episode 1, “Omelette”, “Episode 2, “Coq au Vin”, and Episode 3, “Boeuf Bourguignon”

Julia Child (Sarah Lancashire) in a kitchen pouring wine into a large red pot
Photo courtesy of HBO Max

The following contains spoilers for the premiere of Julia on HBO Max: Episode 1, “Omelette” (written by Daniel Goldfarb and directed by Charles McDougall), Episode 2, “Coq au Vin” (written by Daniel Goldfarb and directed by Charles McDougall), and Episode 3, “Boeuf Bourguignon” (written by Daniel Goldfarb & Eboni Booth and directed by Melanie Mayron)

Have you ever watched the real Julia Child in action? If not, it may seem strange that “The French Chef”—who as Sarah Lancashire memorably mentions in the new HBO Max series Julia, is neither French nor a chef—remains such a staple of the popular imagination. But all it takes is a few minutes watching any of the many versions of her television show, or reading one of her cookbooks, to understand. Some people just have that ephemeral quality that draws us in and creates a new experience with each encounter. So it is with Mrs. Julia Child, and each version we see of her in each new piece of media only enhances the myth.

HBO Max’s Julia is not a groundbreaking show, the entire premise is in fact presupposed on a form of nostalgic reliability that radiates comfort, but that makes it a great show for the current moment. The production design, as befits a show that shares some of the brilliant crew from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is impeccable. Series creator Daniel Goldfarb definitely drew deeply on his experiences on that show to make everything work here. The colors are brilliant and warm—the Child’s car is a bright red hatchback that was the envy of my watch party—and everything has a saturated, homey, tone. This is particularly important to HBO Max’s Julia as the extremely personal, intimate, relationship that the audience developed with Julia Child over the course of the last half of the 20th Century is certainly a huge part of what brought this show about in the first place.

Lancashire brings a perfect balance to her performance. She is able to evoke the memories of Mrs. Child without falling into parody. Even her version of the original’s sing-song voice is unique while still allowing the audience to understand the reference. The great thing though is that the performance has a layered, immaculate but fully lived-in feel that mirrors Julia Child’s kitchen and seems like a commentary on the entire experience of the show. She is also paired perfectly with David Hyde Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth as Paul Child and Avis DeVotto.

Paul and Julia Child sitting in their living room looking lovingly at each other
Photo courtesy of HBO Max

Hyde Pierce’s incredibly anxious, snooty, but ultimately loving and supportive Paul was the biggest grounding force of the first three episodes. Whenever it seemed like Julia was going to fall apart or give up her dreams Paul was there to turn things around. Though sometimes, particularly in the pilot, he started off being obtuse and obstructionist, it was nice to see how quickly and effectively he turned around so he could be on Julia’s side. The most effective (non-cooking) moments of the series so far have all involved the cute, passionate, romance between the central couple.

Avis is just as central to Julia’s experience. Neuwirth and Lancashire have playful chemistry that really evokes the type of real friendship that the characters have developed over years. Avis is a very different person than Julia, and seems much darker and more acerbic, but that cynical veneer interacts well with Julia’s manufactured charm. We see both of them in darker, more introspective moments throughout the episodes, but each time they are there to help the other break free, at least for a moment.

As is necessary for a show based on one of the world’s most famous cooks, HBO Max’s Julia provides an incredible visual feast whenever it starts to focus on the food. Each episode has a televised performance, and a meal prepared by Julia Child, as its inspiration. In the pilot, while Julia has not yet decided to make her own show, she does turn an appearance on a literary show hosted by Albert Duhamel (Jefferson Mays) into a culinary centerpiece. Mays’s enraged reaction to this woman bumbling through his show is par for the course of how the men react to Julia until they taste her food. In the end, it is the food itself that wins everyone over because it has an almost magical appeal, an appeal that the characters keep missing until they are finally forced to acknowledge it.

Julia cooking an omelette on I've Been Reading while the host watches
Photo courtesy of HBO Max

Even before we start seeing scenes from The French Chef, we are treated to a kit of backstage drama and machinations at WGBH, the public television station that first started running Child’s show. Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) is a low-level producer there and as a Black woman in the early 1960s, it is immediately clear that she is struggling to be taken seriously. The show glosses over a lot of the more overt and complicated ideas that a character like Alice has to grapple with, but her tendency to be sidelined and overlooked seems to be an intentional through-line. Bradford is great at giving Alice a sense of purpose and determination, particularly as the issues mount as each episode passes and she grows more confident as her decision to take a chance on Julia Child pays off.

Much of the tension comes with the rest of the staff of WGBH, embodied most effectively in the person of Russ Morash (Fran Kranz). Morash is dismissive of everything regarding Child and it comes across as just as sexist and demeaning as you might expect. There are great pains to ensure the audience understands that Morash is not “that bad” even as Julia begs us to laugh at Russ and his wife eating TV dinners while he complains that this entire “cooking show” idea will never work. Kranz is a charismatic performer and his take ensures that, even at his worst, Morash is never a mustache-twirling villain. He is even shown to show real support for important causes; it is just that his belief that a cooking show can have no educational value reeks of sexism.

Julia stands with her hands on the counter catching her breath while the crew and producers watch
Photo courtesy of HBO Max

And those bigger picture issues of racism and sexism are huge topics that HBO Max’s Julia seems poised to explore but never commits to enough to provide any real depth or insight. What the show does do though is give us an intimate and funny portrait of the woman herself, though it is definitely skewed toward fictionalization most of the time. With a great set of performances and splashy designs, Julia is a show determined to make us understand why the titular chef is so compelling, while Lancashire and Hyde Pierce stand at the center, gently encouraging everyone to be their best.

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

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