“We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.” Look. Times are hard, and I am all about this Julia Child opinion. Now that my lovely veterinarian show is between seasons, I’ve been looking for something else warm and cozy to watch, and here we have Julia, an eight-episode series devoted to Julia Child and her cooking show, The French Chef.
First off, if you do not know who star-of-the-show Sarah Lancashire is, you’re likely not a lesbian who is pretty active on the internet. Remember that scene in Mulan when they light the signal fires to show that the Huns are invading? That is internet lesbians when there’s any kind of queer woman romance on a show. Not only is Sarah Lancashire English (love) and tall (LOVE), but she was also on Last Tango in Halifax, where she was in a relationship with Nina Sosanya. The signal fires were lit, and many a Tumblr dash was filled with Sarah Lancashire GIFs.
I was mainly familiar with Julia Child from the kind-of-okay movie Julie & Julia. If memory serves, the Meryl Streep parts were good? But I don’t cook, and even though I bought her seminal text, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, after that movie, just like everyone else, I think I saw one recipe that involved numerous cooking terms I did not know and shelved it forever.
So this show and its premiere episode! We begin in Oslo, 1961. Julia is cooking for her diplomat husband, Paul, and their Norwegian friends to celebrate Knopf’s offer to publish her co-written cookbook (it had three authors, two French cooking teachers, and Julia). She has jokes! Everything is cozy and warm. Paul, played by David Hyde Pierce (amazing), gets a call, which he thinks is to assign him back to Paris, but really he’s being summoned to a “you will be retiring now” meeting. It is, how do you say, dispiriting. Side note: I was delighted they made a thing of how no one knows how to pronounce Knopf (it’s “K-nopf,” the show says).
One year later, they live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Julia cooks and Paul spends all his time smoking and painting. I know people smoked a lot in mid-20th-century America, but damn. Another cozy thing about this show is all the overhead cooking shots. Things are sizzling in pans! It is very satisfying, made even more so by Julia’s cheery and joyful presence. Am I selling Sarah Lancashire too hard? SHE’S JUST SO GOOD IN THIS.
Julia is going on WGBH to promote the recently published Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Paul hates television. Paul is the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He never stops talking about how terrible it is. Who asked you, Paul? Fun fact about WGBH Boston: At this time, it was not part of PBS; it was a member station of what would become National Education Television (NET). WGBH joined PBS in 1970. Everyone loves public-television history!
The segment Julia appears in is called “I’ve Been Reading,” hosted by Albert Duhamel, a professor at Boston College, who appears with a pipe and a maybe-British accent. He’s a lot but also exactly what you’d expect from this time period. He’s also extremely real! This segment and this man existed; I was so impressed when I looked it up. Duhamel is condescending about the book and says maybe they should rename the program “What My Wife’s Been Reading” (Boooooo). Julia mostly ignores this and proceeds to make an omelet onscreen, which she describes as “nothing more really than lightly coagulated eggs.” She neglects to even mention the title of her book but has a lovely time confusing the host.
One person who appears to sadly not have existed in real life is associate producer Alice Naman, a young Black woman working at the station and seemingly the only woman producer. Alice advocates for Julia to her overconfident, shut-her-down, white-men-in-their-30s co-workers. She understands the importance of what Julia’s doing for food in America — this is a through-line with the women of the show, and it’s maybe a belabored point? But whatever, it’s the pandemic, and I’ll take the feminist story lines in whatever period pieces come my way.
BEBE NEUWIRTH is Julia’s best friend, editor Avis DeVoto, whom we first see holding a cigarette and a martini in one hand. Amazing. Avis, Julia, and Paul go to dinner to celebrate. Another thing about this show is they go out to eat a lot, and if you’re still restaurant-shy, it is a vicarious pleasure. The restaurants are frequently beautiful, and Julia et al. appreciate their food so much that it makes you want to up the quality of your own dishes, which is the whole point of everything here! Eat well and enjoy life, she wrote, grabbing more Cadbury Mini Eggs from a bag.
Did Paul watch Julia on TV? Of course he didn’t! It’s Paul! TV is his nemesis, despite doing absolutely nothing to him! He doesn’t even cling honestly to his principles, though; he lies and pretends he watched it. Avis catches him out and yells at him. I’m sure many people are happy to see Niles and Lilith onscreen together again, but I was very intensely into Frasier-slash-Lilith as a senior in high school, and their changed dynamic on the Cheers spinoff, including Niles’s constant digs about her, made me indignant to an unwarranted degree. I hope my 18-year-old self feels very supported by this weird continued loyalty to a divorced and fictional couple. Julia says she’s fine with Paul not watching, but is she??? Get your act together, Paul.
Before this episode, I never thought about the history of bed sizes, but Julia and Paul’s bed is so small; they are right up on each other. I know they’re very affectionate, etc., etc., but I love my wife and she made us get a king-size bed because “your books are taking up half of it.” Apparently larger beds came on the market in the 1940s but didn’t really become popular until the 1950s. My mother said a king bed was necessary for a happy marriage, which feels right. The Childs’ bed is just so small, and I would push Paul off the side the second he snored. (What if Paul’s parents were killed by a TV, and that’s why he hates them.)
Julia wakes up covered in sweat and goes to the doctor. He tells her it’s menopause in a kind, compassionate way and offers her recommendations for support and information. Hahahahaha, JK. He tells her his wife has her cookbook and walks away. It’s evident Julia is stricken and that this means something to her, particularly regarding her options for biological children. After she leaves and calls home but doesn’t tell Paul (get your communication together, Childs!), she runs into a friend with a baby. This friend (Dorothy) is played by the woman who played Cathy on The Office, a.k.a. the person who aggressively tried to get Jim to cheat on Pam with her (get outta here, Cathy!).
Julia is determined to move forward with her life, and she writes a letter to Alice Naman proposing an educational cooking show. The men at the network pooh-pooh it even though they’ve gotten 27 letters from people wanting more Julia Child. Alice calls Julia into the studio, and Julia brings a Queen of Sheba cake, which contains chocolate and almonds and looks truly amazing. When Alice says it’s a no-go, Julia takes her to see the naysaying men. There Julia says the line from the trailer: “One of the advantages of looking like me is that you learn at a young age how not to take no for an answer.” She offers to pay for a trial episode, and they can take it from there. A fair bargain!
Paul doesn’t want her to do it. It’s a complicated situation with Paul. He loves Julia very much, but she clearly is scared of telling him things. To convince him, she invites her editor from Knopf, Judith Jones, whom Paul respects not only for her championing of Julia’s work but for pulling The Diary of Anne Frank out of the reject pile. With a tremendous amount of patently obvious flattery, Paul comes around to the idea, calling the show a budding rose in a forest of dandelions. Okey dokey.
We end with Julia buying a TV! TV 1, Paul 0.