Julia Child has been in the popular imagination for so long — the memory of her charms and achievements revived by Meryl Streep in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia” five years after Child’s death — that it’s briefly startling to be reminded of the unlikeliness of her professional trajectory, or that she had one at all.
Child was 50 years old when she began her TV career as the 6-foot-2 host of “The French Chef,” the pioneering and long-running cooking program that would eventually earn her multiple Emmys and a Peabody Award. She received training at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, where her diplomat husband, Paul Child, was stationed for a few years. The budget for her show was initially so low it probably wouldn’t have made it to air without her paying for the food out of her own pocket. To debut, “The French Chef” needed not just a talented and knowledgeable star but also a wealthy one, restless and confident enough to bet on herself.
La chef française, who was neither, is newly ubiquitous. More than a decade after Streep garnered 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 Network competition series and, now, the patrician protagonist of the HBO Max comedic drama “Julia,” about the first year behind the scenes of “The French Chef.” And yet the eight-part season is often bracing, particularly in its tale of middle-aged self-discovery and newfound drive. Like a slice of chocolate cake, it doesn’t have to be particularly challenging or ambitious to be mighty satisfying.
“Julia” picks up where “Julie & Julia” left off, with the childless Childs in Cambridge, Mass. — he (David Hyde Pierce) unhappily retired from the Foreign Service, she (Sarah Lancashire) a minor celebrity about town after the publication of her first book, the best-selling “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” According to this version of events, Julia comes up with the idea of a show where she teaches the housewives of Boston “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 supposed to be. On offer are mouthwatering close-ups of food, endless variations on Child’s breathy warble and food and sex puns galore. (My personal favorite: “It’s meant to be vigorous, boys!” grins Julia as she whisks eggs on set in front of her nearly all-male crew. “How else does one achieve stiff peaks?”) The show maintains an ahistorically pop-feminist and comfortingly gentle tone — enough that the series could air on PBS, were it not for all the jokes at public television’s expense. When Paul displays a knee-jerk reluctance about his wife being on TV — a medium he’s convinced is a loathsome fad — her book editor Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott) reassures him that public television’s “mandate is to educate,” adding, “It 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 mixture of affecting grief and sly sarcasm, Julia’s widowed friend Avis DeVoto, whose volunteer work at “The French Chef” keeps her from becoming “another grandmother with a drinking problem.” And as Julia’s success grows, she runs into fellow luminaries such as James Beard (Christian Clemenson) and Betty Friedan (Tracee Ann Chimo), the latter of whom questions, several years before the Second Wave is to begin in earnest, whether Julia’s show offers women a window into a new world or simply chains them to their stoves to make more time-consuming meals. (After acknowledging the book royalties and family money that funded “The French Chef” in its first year, the show somewhat disappoints in its hesitation to acknowledge that Child’s prime audience was women like her — ones with enough leisure time, disposable income and open-minded family members to whip up elaborate and sometimes unfamiliar dishes.)
Like so many White-women-centric shows in recent years, from “Girls” to “GLOW,” “Julia” is much better at tackling gender than race. At Julia’s side from the start is Alice Naman (played by winsome 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 at her network, but the show doesn’t really grapple with her race in a way that really conveys the series’s early-1960s Boston setting. (At least Alice exhibits layers denied to many of her counterparts; her scenes with her convention-hewing mother, played by Adriane Lenox, feel truly lived-in.) Still, based as it is on historical events, “Julia” retains an aspirational, even escapist quality — it’s meant to be a confection. Sexists and snobs are put in their place with elan and a smile. Everyone gets their just desserts.
Thankfully, Goldfarb balances all this sweetness with a few notes of resignation and terror. Paul Child, who’s become a pop-cultural symbol of husbandly support, especially 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 into serving as his wife’s right-hand man. For her part, Julia is revealed to have romanticized the more burdensome aspects of their of-its-time marriage, such as her need to strategize around Paul’s (understandable) desire for a sense of control.
Early in the pilot, Julia receives a diagnosis of menopause, a milestone that unearths insecurities and heralds a possible new phase in her affectionate but dual-bedroomed marriage. She starts to keep secrets from her husband, anxious that “The French Chef” might be her last opportunity to pursue a dream, however outlandish. Lancashire is much more naturalistic than Streep, giving us her character’s fury and self-doubt as well as her scheming and charisma. Even in a show as sugarcoated as this one, she lets us sample the tang of fear just under the surface.
Julia (45 minutes; eight episodes) premieres Thursday on HBO Max with Episodes 1 to 3. New episodes will stream weekly.