Julia Child was born in 1912 in Pasadena, California, almost a hundred and ten years ago. Ninety-one years later, after a remarkably eventful life, her body died, but her fame — her wisdom, her personality, her perspective — continued to grow. child stays today that Grande Dame of American gastronomy, a towering icon few can match in stature and influence. It helps that the story of Child’s life has an inherent narrative twist: a headstrong, inelegantly tall girl from a wealthy family throws herself into government service as part of the OSS, the foreign intelligence operation that would evolve into the modern day CIA. She falls extravagantly in love with a colleague, Paul Child. He’s stationed in France, and she—nearing forty and previously inexperienced in the kitchen—begins taking cooking classes to pass the time while he’s presumably spying. 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. After all, there were more Julia Child books than a normal sized shelf could hold and hundreds of hours of footage of Child cooking this and that in a studio kitchen while narrating amiably into the camera – her intelligent, goofy demeanor, emanating from the canvas .
By now almost everyone knows the gist of this story. There were biographies, anthologies, documentaries, magazine specials, children’s books, blogs, “SNL” tributes, and her kitchen – not a replica, but the real one – was installed at the Smithsonian. There was also, of course, a major glossy film: 2009’s Julie & Julia, which starred Meryl Streep in her Meryl Streepest and embodied Child’s idiosyncratic charm. And now, for those still not getting their fill, there’s a big, shiny TV show streaming on HBO Max. Simply titled “Julia,” the scripted series explores the early days of Child’s television career after she and Paul left OSS and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paul (David Hyde Pierce) paints and studies judo. Julia (Sarah Lancashire) is arguing over the phone with her Parisian co-writer Simone Beck (Isabella Rossellini, hilarious and almost unrecognizable in a blonde wig) about writing volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After a brief, charmingly disruptive guest appearance on a local public television show to promote Volume I, Julia realizes television is the future. She hosts an educational cooking show and offers to pay the pilot herself; the rest is history – and also plot.
We know that the child show The French Chef will have amazing success in the future and usher in a new era in both public television and cooking television. So Julia, which needs narrative tension, focuses on all the things that might get in the way. The show’s Juliet faces resistance at every turn. Despite her countless fans, her television producers don’t take her show seriously. Despite their enormous sales figures, their publisher considers their books unimportant. Despite such a deep love between her and Paul that they sometimes go to bed in matching pajamas, he is jealous that her career has thrived while his has faded. The show-within-a-show is a messy endeavor, and “Juliet’s” montages of scrappy creativity are incredibly fun. Making the show of her dreams is an all-hands endeavor that requires a special set with working appliances and running water, the development of new filmmaking techniques to make the cooking apprenticeship dazzling on screen, and a sizable cohort of volunteers who taking care of grocery shopping and handling props behind the scenes. “The French Chef” is a smashing success and Julia is brimming with accomplishment and usefulness. Still, she’s worn out by a relentless production schedule due to lucrative syndication deals with public broadcasters in other cities. The main antagonist in a story based on a life shaped by an endless upward trend is success itself.
Julia is set in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was already flourishing and the seeds of the women’s liberation movement were beginning to sprout. The severity of the social upheaval of the era is placed in the show in moral contrast to Julia’s career, which is repeatedly dismissed as too domestic, too frivolous. Her producer Russell Morash (Fran Kranz) complains to his network boss that he’d rather be working on a series about “something important”; In the following episode, formidable book publisher Blanche Knopf (Judith Light, exquisite) rails against her protégé, the legendary Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), for wasting her talent editing children’s cookbooks even though they’re elbow-deep in Updike could. This is a rich source of excitement, on and off screen – is success the same as meaning? – but with Julia, the unassailable virtue of the protagonist’s contributions is always a foregone conclusion. As Child travels the world, she meets a cavalcade of contemporary celebrities who neatly espouse one side or the other of the debate. James Beard (Christian Clemenson) enjoys the physical pleasures of the kitchen. Betty Friedan (an impeccably hostile Tracee Chimo Pallero) despises Juliet’s elevation of the domestic. After Morash requests a show with more social impact, his boss points out that The French Chef’s success is paying off for the station’s political journalism. “Really, you are Working on civil rights,” he says. Did any of this really happen? Does it even matter? As in any bio-image, the Juliet of “Julia” is a character, not a person, and her life story is bent in the service of an eight-episode arc.
Lancashire, who plays Juliet, is a brilliant British actress who has a.o BAFTA for the role of a tragedy-stricken cop on Happy Valley. Her Julia is intelligent and irreverent, a solid physical presence with a properly swinging, lilting voice, but she has little of the hard-edged cheer Streep brought to the big screen. The drama in Julia demands that the character have a softness and passivity, a marked insecurity that results from being constantly underestimated by those around her. The character’s single-mindedness seems to chaotically wax and wane depending on who he last bumped into. Child’s big feats of charisma (both in life and in the world of the show) — like luring in an entourage of die-hard friends (including the beaming Bebe Neuwirth as Avis DeVoto) and swiftly coaxing a skeptical WGBH producer into green-lighting of the show – happens off screen. Her most salient moments of self-possession come 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 storyline, a cute little arc of professional ambition meets romantic prospects, with Julia acting as a fairy godmother of sorts. The real Julia was remarkably forward on social justice issues for a woman of her class and era, but there’s something superficial about the Alice storyline, as if the show created “Julia” to create a black woman, whole stuff, just for his heroine as a mentor.
[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]
Julia Child superfans who are offended by the liberties “Julia” takes will find something more directly hagiographic on Basic Cable. The Julia Child Challenge, a culinary competition that debuted on the Food Network in March, will bring Child back to viewers as the game show host. Through skillful editing of their television footage, the series creators got Child to direct an elimination-style reality show on a giant projection screen, like the big and powerful Oz in a chambray apron. The result is an eerie transplant of the traditional stand-and-stir cooking show into the new era of Chopped, Top Chef, and their brethren: cooking classes repurposed for culinary combat. As Child sings instructions, participants fillet whole flounders, shell oysters and butcher chickens. The set pays homage to her famous eat-in kitchen with pegboards and copper cookware.