There’s a familiar undercurrent in biopic projects of legendary figures: Stories about famous athletes or politicians or movie stars need to include the darker, more personal details of their lives because biographical narratives need to humanize their subjects. There is some of that in Julia, the new HBO Max series about the chef, author, and TV personality Julia Child. She was remarkable, and the series enjoys showing that off. For the most part, though, Julia is a warm and cozy treatment of Child, the TV equivalent of pulling a simmering pot of boeuf bourguignon out of the oven and taking it straight to the table to serve. There are brief moments of tension, and there’s the satisfying pleasure of watching a person figure something out. But Julia Child as presented in Julia does not need humanizing or any of the frictive strain between the stage personality and the person behind the curtains. Here she is, delightfully human both onscreen and off.
Julia does not focus on Child’s entire life. Although it’s a story about her, it’s mostly interested in the creation of Child as a public figure, her transition from successful but invisible cookbook author into one of the most familiar faces on American TV. The story picks up with Child (played by Sarah Lancashire) and her husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce) as semi-retired former government employees now living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s an ideal framing: We meet the Childs as fully formed people, with Julia already coasting on the success of her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and with Paul settled into being a doting, sometimes too-underfoot husband. Within that framing, there are two inciting events that set the course for Julia’s interwoven approach to its subject’s public and personal lives. In one, Julia is invited onto a local public TV program called I’ve Been Reading, where instead of having a boring chat about writing a cookbook, she hauls out a hot plate and demonstrates how to make an omelet. In the other, a doctor informs Julia that she’s entering menopause.
The development of the TV story line is very fun. You get all the excitement of watching people invent something brand new and nearly bound to fail but none of the terror about what will happen if they can’t pull it together. (Spoiler: The show’s a hit.) But there’s a real thrill in watching Child pull together the idea for a TV cooking show out of nothing at all and in watching her producers and friends slowly figure out the mechanics of how to make Julia’s vision happen. Russell Morash (Fran Kranz) is a WGBH producer initially flabbergasted at the idea that a cooking show should ever belong on highbrow public TV, while Brittany Bradford’s Alice, an underappreciated and overworked young Black producer at WGBH, can immediately see Child’s enormous star quality. Add to that a glorious Bebe Neuwirth as Child’s longtime friend Avis and you get an unlikely, highly entertaining band of ’60s public-television Avengers, saving the country by transforming its relationship with food.
Julia revels in all the little mechanical bits and pieces that go into creating The French Chef. How to get the camera at an angle that will capture what it looks like inside the pot Julia’s stirring? How to pay for all the groceries on their tiny budget? What will Alice do to make herself an indispensable and valued team member? How will they teach Julia how to look at the right camera? It’s that bracing, comforting hit of competence porn: people who care, doing their jobs well.
But the other inciting spark is that meeting with the doctor, and it’s one piece of Julia’s less sure-footed examination of Julia outside of the kitchen (or the kitchen that gets built into a TV studio). It’s poignant, and suggestive, that the series points to this realization as a crucial moment in Child’s life — she finally has to accept that she won’t have children, so all her energy can get funneled into her work. Although Julia doesn’t skip past her sadness about that, it does then try to integrate that idea into a deeper exploration of Child’s cultural iconography as an atypical kind of woman in an atypical marriage, including the way Child saw herself. She and Paul are sexual and affectionate partners, but staying that way is challenging as Julia upends the traditional gendered marital norms and Paul has to fade into the background. Julia pokes at Child’s awareness of and uneasiness about homosexuality and then stretches further into the knotty question of feminism, both in terms of her own success and in the expectations that her ideals around food placed on American housewives.
The effort to loop Child into the cultural and historical context of her time makes Julia a better show than it could otherwise have been. There’s no attempt to nail down a simplistic reading of who she was or to pretend that Child was not a person in the world, ignorant of the massive upheavals of the 1960s because she was so enthralled with demonstrating how to whip up egg whites. Some of Julia’s cultural world is less like context and more like retroactive 2022 Julia Child wish fulfillment, as in a scene where Child parties in San Francisco with a flamboyant James Beard, who introduces her to raucous, underground gay culture. Does it feel plausible that a 1963 Julia Child met a drag queen dressed up as her in a basement club, and that Child responded with delight? I don’t know, but I also don’t mind a little historical revisionism when it’s fun!
The downside of Julia’s cultural tourism, though, are the moments later in the series when it starts to feel a little like Julia Child is an improbable Forrest Gump, stumbling over multiple legends in the course of one public TV gala. Child’s tendency toward culinary excess does not need to be echoed by quite that much narrative excess.
Then there’s the question of Alice, the producer who’s so crucial to building Child’s early TV career. She is an invention, a loose fictional adaptation of the actual woman named Ruth Lockwood who helped shepherd The French Chef in its early days. Julia seems to have wanted to fictionalize Lockwood so that Alice could be Black, adding both more diversity to the cast and an additional dimension to all the other ways the show seeks to situate Julia Child in her cultural moment. Bradford’s performance as Alice is nuanced and careful but also bright enough to hold up well next to Lancashire’s loud, boisterous Julia. Alice’s fictionality feels weird, though — she’s such a sympathetic character and her scenes are some of the strongest in the series, and yet, her existence also seems mostly about finding another angle to reflect Julia’s excellence. See? Julia appeals to everyone, including this impressive young Black woman whose experience of workplace harassment is bad, but not in a way that forces us to think about racism all that much. It’s a more pervasive version of that problem with the celebrity gala scene: You can feel the hand of a writer, pushing all the pieces into a design that will look just exactly the way they want it to. Alice is an invention who feels too neatly invented.
Yes, Julia has some flaws, but its good qualities outweigh the missteps. Most importantly, the show feels like the Julia Child it wants to portray: warm, generous, driven, imperfect, charming, and in love with feeling good. If Julia dodges around some rough patches to make that story happen, well, that’s just what Child would do: Even if it came out of the oven a bit wobbly, just put it all together and serve it with confidence.