‘Julia’ review: Just desserts and elk, served with a smile

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Child was 50 when she began her television career as the 6ft 2in host of ‘The French Chef’, the pioneering and long-running cooking program that would eventually earn him multiple Emmys and a Peabody Award. She received training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where her diplomat husband, Paul Child, was stationed for a few years. Her show’s budget was initially so low that it probably wouldn’t have aired without her paying for the food out of her own pocket. For its debut, “The French Chef” needed not only a talented and knowledgeable star, but also a wealthy, restless star who was confident enough to bet on herself.

The French chef, who was neither, is now ubiquitous. More than a decade after Streep earned an Oscar nomination in the Nora Ephron-directed biopic, the public television icon has become the subject of a 2021 documentary, the inspiration for a food competition series Network and, Now, HBO Comedy Drama Patrician Protagonist Max “Julia,” on First Year Behind the Scenes from “The French Chef”. And yet, the eight-part season is often invigorating, especially in its story of middle-aged self-discovery and newfound vibrancy. Like a slice of chocolate cake, it doesn’t have to be particularly difficult or ambitious to be powerful. satisfactory.

“Julia” picks up where “Julie & Julia” left off, with the childless kids in Cambridge, Mass. – he (David Hyde Pierce) sadly retired from the Foreign Service, she (Sarah Lancashire) a minor town celebrity after the publication of her first book, the best-selling ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. According to this version of events, Julia has an idea for a show where she teaches Boston housewives “how to taste life,” as the (mostly) adoring Paul puts it, via butter, cream, and wine.

Created by Daniel Goldfarb, “Julia” knows exactly what kind of show it’s meant to be. Offered are appetizing close-ups of food, endless variations on Child’s breathless chirp, and puns on food and sex galore. (My favorite: “It’s supposed to be vigorous, boys!” smiles Julia as she whips eggs onto the set in front of her almost all-male crew. “How do you get to steep peaks?”) The show maintains a pop ahistorical-feminist and soft, heartwarming tone — enough for the show to air on PBS, if not for all the jokes at the expense of public television. When Paul displays an instinctive reluctance to have his wife appear on television – a medium he is convinced is repugnant fad – his editor Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott) reassures him that the “ public television’s mandate is to educate,” adding, “He hasn’t figured out how to do that without putting people to sleep.

We’re also treated to a mini “Frasier” reunion between Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth, who plays, with a mix of touching grief and sly sarcasm, Julia’s widowed friend Avis DeVoto, whose volunteer work at “The French Chef “prevents her from becoming “another grandmother with a drinking problem.” And as Julia’s success grows, she meets other luminaries such as James Beard (Christian Clemenson) and Betty Friedan (Tracee Ann Chimo), the latter wondering, many years before the second wave began. Seriously, if Julia’s show gives women a window into a new world or just chains them to their stoves to cook meals that take longer. (After acknowledging the book royalties and family money that funded “The French Chef” in its first year, the show is somewhat disappointing in its reluctance to acknowledge that Child’s primary audience was women. like her – those with enough free time, disposable income and open-minded family members to cook up elaborate and sometimes unfamiliar dishes.)

Like so many white female-centric shows in recent years, from “Girls” to “GLOW,” “Julia” is much better at addressing gender than race. Alongside Julia from the start is Alice Naman (played by the seductive newcomer Brittany Bradford), a character based in part on Child’s producer Ruth Lockwood. Alice is a black woman in a sea of ​​white men on her network, but the show doesn’t really tackle her race in a way that truly reflects the show’s setting in Boston in the early 1960s. (Au (less, Alice features layers denied to many of her counterparts; her scenes with her convention-holding mother, played by Adriane Lenox, feel truly lived-in.) Yet, grounded in historical events, “Julia” retains an aspiration, same escapist quality – it’s supposed to be a confectionery. Sexists and snobs are put in their place with enthusiasm and a smile. Everyone is entitled to their desserts.

Luckily, Goldfarb balances all that sweetness with some hints of resignation and dread. Paul Child, who has become a pop-cultural symbol of marital support, particularly after Stanley Tucci’s embodiment of a fantasy of uxoriousness in “Julie & Julia,” feels complicated again with this iteration; an excellent Pierce projects his character’s strenuous efforts to channel his professional disappointments by serving as his wife’s right-hand man. For her part, Julia is revealed to have romanticized the most harrowing aspects of their marriage in her time, such as her need to strategize around Paul’s (understandable) desire for a sense of control.

At the start of the pilot, Julia is diagnosed with menopause, a stage that reveals insecurities and heralds a possible new phase in her loving but two-chamber marriage. She begins to keep secrets from her husband, anxious that “The French Chef” will be his last opportunity to pursue a dream, no matter how extravagant. Lancashire is far more naturalistic than Streep, giving us the fury and doubt of her character as well as her intrigue and charisma. Even in a show as sugar coated as this, she lets us taste the flavor of fear just below the surface.

Julia (45 minutes; eight episodes) airs Thursday on HBO Max with episodes 1-3. New episodes will air weekly.

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