HBO Max’s Julia is a Charming First Course that Leaves Room for More

The new HBO Max series “Julia” has many strengths to its credit, and this review will savor them at length later. But first, it must be said: this is not a comedy. There are funny bits, yes. And because it’s a slice-of-life character study of the kitchen sink variety—there are little bits of everything. In the world of television—particularly the streaming kind—“comedy” is becoming one of those words that’s ubiquitous but fundamentally meaningless, like “artisanal.”  

Perhaps “Julia” is labeled as a comedy with the thinking that, like many comedies, it’s comfort food viewing. Like slipping on a pair of warm, fuzzy socks, it inspires warm, fuzzy feelings, much like the boisterous Child (Sarah Lancashire) herself. 

The pilot opens shortly after the publication of Child’s seminal first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After a doctor’s visit reveals that Child, in her early fifties, is going through menopause, she starts to become preoccupied with what she sees as a lack of legacy and purpose. In a roundabout but ultimately convincing way, this leads her to television, and ultimately her groundbreaking cooking show, “The French Chef.”

“At this stage of my life, I want to feel relevant. I want to BE relevant,” she tells a friend; a through-line which echoes throughout the show and across the entirety of the cast. Julia’s affectionate husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce), a retired diplomat turned artist wavering in a liminal space between hobbyist and professional, finds his discontent with his own situation bubbling to the surface as his wife’s star rises. The Childs’ close friend Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), a sharp-tongued widow who’s been living in black for long enough for it to have become a core component of her personality, starts to wonder if she truly wants to spend however many years she has left in mourning. 

At the local public television station, WGBH, ambitious young associate producer Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) is hungry to make a name for herself, to be someone and do something; she is the first—and in the beginning, only—champion of Julia’s idea for a show because she quickly imagines that it could be her “something.” Her primary opponent is fellow producer Russell Morash (Fran Kranz), similarly determined to do great things, and equally convinced that producing a cooking show would be heading in precisely the opposite direction of his lofty aspirations. The way in which certain core themes are reflected across the entire cast of characters without sliding into repetitiveness is, narratively, one of the show’s greatest accomplishments. 

Overall, “Julia” is impeccably cast—there is not a bad performance to be found—but the centerpiece is British actress Sarah Lancashire’s performance as Julia. Lancashire has previously displayed her acting chops in series such as “Happy Valley,” but never before has she taken on a part quite so transformative. And it’s the sort of transformative performance buoyed by hair and makeup but rooted in something deeper—Lancashire is practically unrecognizable here, and yet her version of Julia does not feel like it’s simply mimicking the real-life Child, but a unique iteration of such a larger-than-life legend. It’s a particularly smart course of action because Lancashire is, of course, not just competing with the memory of the real-life Child, an iconic screen presence, but Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance in “Julie & Julia.” Lancashire’s version of Child stands not just on its own, but rises above the towering legacies it must contend with, which is no small feat. 

That “Julia” is a show helmed by a room full of playwrights, including creator Daniel Goldfarb, is self-evident. And I say this first and foremost as a compliment. The particular way in which the show is character and relationship driven feels like a direct result of the impressive theatrical resumes of its writers. “Julia” invests you in the characters so much that the stakes can often be objectively rather small, like crafting the perfect baguette recipe, but wholly compelling. You care because the characters do, and the series succeeds in making you care about them. 

Ironically enough, it’s when the show tries to be the most “TV-like” in its structure and pacing that it struggles to compel most. “Julia” introduces convenient cameos that, particularly in contrast to the narrative subtleties on display elsewhere, feel practically like bald-faced plot devices. While there are several great conflicts that ebb and flow over the season, the particular crisis point it tries to push to give the final episode a true “season finale” air feels forced and awkward. “Julia,” in many ways including but not limited to the ample and hunger-inducing imagery of food, is just about as close as one gets in a scripted series to the appeal of “The Great British Bake Off.” And much like that show, the prospect of forcing extra tension into the situation only threatens to break the wholesome charm that makes it so endearing. 

Like so much period television of late, “Julia” gets awkward around the subject of race. The show makes the effort to insert people of color where they historically were not—namely Alice (Brittany Bradford), a young associate producer at WGBH who is the first to champion Julia and her vision for a cooking series—and then gets stuck in the awkward limbo of not wanting to talk about race, but also not not talk about it. Everything gets turned into euphemisms in a bizarre way that makes race start to feel like a taboo subject. What makes the whole thing particularly odd is how Bradford—the one main character of color—is, at times, treated like a Black woman in the 1960s, but other times treated more like a white woman. Her Blackness is never openly discussed, but the subtext of it notably mainly comes through in scenes where Alice is primarily interacting with other women. In other words, when she’s in a room with white men, it is treated like what makes her different from the crowd is entirely being female. However, when she’s in a group of other women, but still subtly othered—it is only then that her Blackness feels relevant; the intersectionality, particularly in such a generally well-written, well-observed show, leaves something to be desired. 

Should “Julia” have a future beyond this season, this is certainly one aspect where it has plenty of room for growth. And based on the timeline of this season, which spans the making of the first season of “The French Chef,” which ultimately ran for ten seasons, it definitely feels like the creators are playing the long game here. While there’s definitely still room for growth, “Julia” is, all things considered, a well-written, superbly acted, charmer of a show. I can definitely imagine enjoying another serving. 

All eight episodes screened for review. “Julia” is now playing on HBO Max. The first three episodes of “Julia” are now streaming, with a new episode premiering every week through May 5.

Posted by Contributor