Before Ina Garten was pretentiously promising us that “store-bought is fine” on “Barefoot Contessa” or Gordon Ramsay was creatively roasting a chef for being “a f**king donkey” on “Hell’s Kitchen,” there was Julia Child. Child was a chef and TV personality who pioneered TV cooking in the early ’60s with her award-winning series “The French Chef.” Due to limited technology at the time, the episodes were largely unedited, which allowed the show to uniquely showcase the authenticity of her cooking process and encourage a naturally cheery demeanor for viewers.
The new HBO Max series “Julia” chronicles the later years of Julia Child’s (Sarah Lancashire, “Happy Valley”) life as she starred in “The French Chef.” Making a TV show takes a village, and Julia’s merry band of supporters is rounded out by her husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce, “Frasier”), best friend and editor Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth, “Frasier”), fictional producer Alice (Brittany Bradford, “Fear the Walking Dead”) and real-life publisher Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott, “The Duel”).
With awards season wrapping up, Hollywood has seemingly no shortage of biopics recently, but “Julia,” strangely enough, doesn’t appear to be exploiting the show’s namesake in an effort to obsess over raw or intimate, never-before-seen aspects of her life. Instead, “Julia” spends much of its time and energy illuminating the behind the scenes work of making a TV show and Child’s resounding imprint on the still-new cooking show landscape and TV culture of the ’60s.
Frankly, it’s sort of refreshing to watch a biography with a capacity to offer more in its engagement beyond the centerpiece’s brightly-passionate-presence-to-tragic-demise trope alone. “Julia” has all the standard ingredients, a warm and lively portrayal by Lancashire, a story centered around a woman going against the grain of societal norms with an unwavering belief in her own craft and a picture perfect backdrop of suburban mid-century America to fall back on. “Julia” could’ve very well stopped there, called it a day and picked up an Emmy for Lancashire on the way out.
But it didn’t. It took the time to sift through the hiccups of the journey of “The French Chef” from its accidental inception with Julia’s infamous impromptu omelet tutorial to becoming a fully-fledged Emmy-winning series and staple in American households. The show neatly guides us through the reality of TV production just as Julia gets wrapped up in it herself. We sit through long nights of Julia meticulously sorting through recipes and typing up scripts, watch Avis hide behind the counter to assist in the middle of takes and enjoy Julia hosting weekend cooking lessons for housewives to cover the bulk of the show’s expenses.
“Julia” takes care to pay tribute to the enduring efforts of those in the TV industry at a time when public television networks weren’t taken all that seriously (shortly before TV became the mass media giant as we know it). Julia herself follows a similar trajectory. Despite the fact that she evidently recognizes the potential of her own show, it takes some time for others, namely men, to follow suit, from the approval of her husband Paul to her eventual real-life producer Russ Morash (Fran Kranz, “Mass”). For Julia, this is more than a hobby or a job. It’s a project driven solely by her passion, that would not have existed had she not championed her show as she did. In the midst of the show being repeatedly shut down before it even could take off, Julia emphatically says, “I don’t care if it’s nuts. Or a terrible business decision. I want to do it more than anything.”
When “Julia” goes beyond the scope of “The French Chef” and enters the life of Julia Child, we’re given a chance to glimpse the repeated trials and tribulations of a woman forging her own path in a business and art world she has no perceived place in. I care far less if Lancashire got the minutiae of her mannerisms down or the precise lilt in her voice, because to be fair, at this point in the biopic game with a talented cast and an abundance of resources, these features are a near given. What sets it apart is when the story has the capacity to exist beyond the biographical facts of someone’s life and to contribute something to the creative discourse as a whole.
“Julia” does just that, because while its picturesque cooking sequences and earnestly goofy food puns flow out of Julia with ease, what sticks with us is the lasting sensation of the real meat of Julia’s story. Like any good comfort meal, “Julia” is best consumed wrapped up on the couch, blanketed in the warmth.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.