The first thing you need to do whilst watching HBO Max’s “Julia” is to get all other versions of Julia Child out of your head. That proves easier than might be expected, given such enduring depictions as Meryl Streep’s lauded turn in Nora Ephron’s “Julie and Julia” (2009) or, most cartoonishly, Dan Aykroyd’s “Saturday Night Live” performance of Child as a careening agent of chaos who constantly bleeds out like a geyser. In its early offings, “Julia” acts as a deliberate counterpoint to those larger-than-life portrayals, bringing Julia back down to earth as a flesh and blood human woman, played with empathetic precision by Sarah Lancashire (“Happy Valley,” “Last Tango in Halifax”). She’s still the life of the party, but she’s also prone to the adrenaline crash after the food’s gone and the guests leave.
This isn’t to say that “Julia” is so grim. In fact, it’s very clear early on that the comedy shares not just a producer with “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (i.e. “Julia” creator Daniel Goldfarb), but much of its sensibilities and shortcomings as well.
Like “Maisel” before it, “Julia” does a remarkable job recreating a specific slice of upper middle class life as anchored by a white woman whose outsized personality comes with similarly notable talent. Its production and set design, costuming, and attention to detail are impressive, and undeniably engrossing when the show hits a particular comedic rhythm (or when Charles McDougall’s direction lingers on tantalizing shots of gourmet food, with the sound of chopping and sizzling pumped up for maximum effect). It boasts a strong cast, with the likes of David Hyde Pierce (as Paul Child) and Bebe Neuwirth (as Julia’s best friend Avis) ably supporting Lancashire’s central performance. And yet throughout its eight episodes, “Julia” also has an uneasy relationship with any narrative wrinkle that might complicate its otherwise straightforward story of an unconventional woman becoming a bonafide television star. Even as the series (from showrunner Chris Keyser) identifies more complex themes at play — Julia’s heartbreak at hitting menopause before having a child, her Black producer Alice (Brittany Bradford) struggling to gain the respect she deserves — it’s mostly happy to skip along the (admittedly very charming) surface.
This is especially frustrating given how strong the acting is across the board; these are actors who could handle stories with more heft, if given the chance. Lancashire, as aforementioned, is an instant success in a very tricky role, especially as she nails Child’s famously lilting voice without making a joke out of it. As Julia’s devoted, neurotic, and proudly snobbish husband Paul, Pierce is essentially playing a parallel universe version of Niles Crane — which is to say, he’s a perfect fit for the role. It’s especially fun to watch him spar with his “Frasier” costar Neuwirth, whose blunt, dry as toast Avis steals every scene. When the trio of Lancashire, Pierce, and Neuwirth get the chance to dip into screwball farce, it’s undeniably delightful to watch them fly across the screen with expert ease.
Fiona Glascott proves a solid voice of reason in the series as Julia’s longtime editor Judith Jones, while Fran Kranz, stepping back into acting after writing and directing the 2021 film “Mass,” brings in a necessary bristly energy as Julia’s reluctant director, though it’s not long before she manages to smooth out his edges. More resistant to smoothing is Julia’s French co-writer Simone Beck, played by Isabella Rossellini with reliable panache. Deeper into the season, Judith Light’s formidable Blanche Knopf and James Cromwell’s cranky father act as the closest thing “Julia” has to antagonists (at least until Julia eventually faces criticism from Betty Friedan, an apparently unforgivable horror).
More confusing is the show’s characterization of Alice, which is not a knock on Bradford. Far from it, her performance is one of the most nuanced “Julia” has to offer. Unlike every other character, though, Alice is a fabrication; Ruth Lockwood, Child’s Smith College roommate, was the “French Chef” producer who shepherded the show from beginning to end. By making her a Black woman, “Julia” tries to be more inclusive than the reality without fully reckoning with what it would mean for a Black woman to be producing a show made by and catering to well-off white women who might fancy themselves more progressive than they truly are. Putting Alice at the center of this story is a fascinating choice, but one that requires more consideration and depth than “Julia” quite allows.
The same holds true for other potentially rich — or at least a bit thornier — narrative areas that lie outside the runaway success of “The French Chef.” The real Paul Child was questioned during the McCarthy era under suspicion of Communist ties and homosexuality, before he was forced into early retirement. This rather traumatizing series of events somehow never comes up on “Julia,” despite Paul’s restlessness and Julia’s discomfort with homosexuality looming large. The series also depicts Julia’s menopause as the impetus for her pitching “The French Chef” to the TV station rather than the other way around, as Child herself described it in “My Life in France.”
It’s especially strange how much intriguing material “Julia” leaves on the table considering how much it otherwise struggles to find quite enough to say within its eight episodes. (As is, the season could have easily made for six tighter chapters.) But it’s also easy to understand why the show gave in to the temptation to spend more time with Lancashire’s Julia, a brassy broad with a taste for the finer things in life, a solid sex pun, and caring for her friends and family. There’s not a ton of conflict in that to drive the show forward, but as the millions who watched and loved “The French Chef” know, it’s a good time nonetheless.
The first three episodes of “Julia” premiere Thursday, March 31 on HBO Max, with new episodes then dropping weekly.