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‘Julia’ Review: HBO Max Series About Julia Child Is a Fun Feast

"Julia" is the ultimate comfort television.

Sarah Lancashire

“Julia”

HBO Max

Julia Child is having quite the resurgence this year. HBO Max’s new limited series, “Julia,” is the third program aimed at the legendary American-born chef who brought French cuisine to the masses, joining Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary released last year and Food Network’s “Julia Child Challenge.” It’s not clear exactly why Child is capturing audiences’ interests at the moment — perhaps it’s fueled, in part, by us spending two years in our homes realizing we can’t cook. But either way, it’s a great way to appreciate the majesty of food, especially when it looks so good on-screen.

Created by “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” producer Daniel Goldfarb, “Julia” is a light and charming examination of Child’s rise to fame. We meet Julia (British actress Sarah Lancashire) at a crossroads with her husband, Paul (David Hyde Pierce). Despite their deep love for each other, Julia is entering menopause and the delay to have children is now a final decision. With the recent success of her French cookbook Julia believes the burgeoning world of television might be the next natural step.

It’s hard dissociating “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” from this series; both focus on women bucking convention to pave their own way. Julia Child isn’t exactly dropping quips here and there, but the audience gets glimpses of her humor (and foul mouth). While filming the pilot for her first episode, Lancashire gets a great opportunity to show off physical comedy as she twirls and trips over her helpers, conveniently hiding behind a counter, while trying to navigate a kitchen that’s not her own. When she goes to taste her creation the way Lancashire delivers the line, “That’s not good at all” is utterly hilarious because it feels like what Child might have done.

A slight divergence to talk about the way this series looks. There are bright pops of color akin to watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but what ends up being the highlight is the food itself. The camera always takes the opportunity to revel in the fruits of Child’s labor, even showing how the series came to revolutionize the way cooking shows were filmed. Much of the frivolity of the series stems from watching Child and her friends cook; finding comfort, strength, or admiration for themselves through what they’re cooking.

Lancashire doesn’t necessarily look like Child nor does she boast Child’s famous accent. But that’s to her benefit, as in lieu of those gimmicks the actress gives audiences a full-bodied, warm, and charming performance. She starts out as an aimless older woman wondering if she’s made mistakes by not having children, but that’s quickly cast aside on Child becomes enmeshed in the television world.

Sarah Lancashire

“Julia”

HBO Max

Each episode focuses on a specific episode of “The French Chef,” which ran on public television station WGBH from 1963 to 1973. Child’s determination to make a good show is her original aim, but as the series progresses she butts up against low budgets, male overseers, and an unfortunate encounter with “Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan that makes her question whether she’s setting the women’s movement back.

That question of whether Child was a “good” or “bad” feminist develops late in the series, but there is a desire to look at the Wild West of television in the 1960s through women’s eyes. Julia’s producer, Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) struggles to be taken seriously, as both a woman and a Black woman, in the television industry. Bradford is solid, but where Julia and Paul Child’s relationship feels balanced within the narrative, Alice’s relationships — and her mother’s pushing her to get married — feels like an afterthought later in the season.

Another unfortunate comparison to “Mrs. Maisel” is how “Julia” handles (or really doesn’t) race. This isn’t presented as a world where microaggressions are paramount, but there are moments where one would expect Alice to get a moment to discuss her race, like going to a butcher shop and being ignored by the white shop owner only to have Julia’s friend Avis (Bebe Neuwirth) get immediate service. Avis chalks it up to Alice needing to be pushier. Another plotline that runs throughout the series is Julia’s male producer, Russ Morash’s (a delightful Fran Kranz) desire to direct social justice documentaries. Though he does interact with Black female activists, and comes to acknowledge his white privilege, it’s not handled with much depth. It’s a puff pastry plotline that simply sits.

“Julia” isn’t an awards darling, but in a landscape where prestige television and the grimdark world of Marvel Studios rules supreme it’s nice to have something that’s just comforting. “Julia” is the ultimate comfort television that wraps the audience in the joys of cooking, with sweet performances from actors all at the top of their game. Just sit back and enjoy this one with your favorite dessert and wine.

Grade: B

“Julia” streams on HBO Max starting Thursday, March 31.

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