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HBO Max's Julia offers a warm and cozy take on food TV icon Julia Child

  • "There’s a familiar undercurrent in biopic projects of legendary figures: Stories about famous athletes or politicians or movie stars need to include the darker, more personal details of their lives because biographical narratives need to humanize their subjects," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "There is some of that in Julia, the new HBO Max series about the chef, author, and TV personality Julia Child. She was remarkable, and the series enjoys showing that off. For the most part, though, Julia is a warm and cozy treatment of Child, the TV equivalent of pulling a simmering pot of boeuf bourguignon out of the oven and taking it straight to the table to serve. There are brief moments of tension, and there’s the satisfying pleasure of watching a person figure something out. But Julia Child as presented in Julia does not need humanizing or any of the frictive strain between the stage personality and the person behind the curtains. Here she is, delightfully human both onscreen and off."


    • It's time to quit telling Julia Child's story: Julia "is the latest attempt to narrativize Child’s life, and you wouldn’t be wrong to ask what else is there to say?" says Jaya Saxena. "By now, we’ve had both the book and the movie Julie & Julia, multiple documentaries, numerous biographies, Dan Aykyrod’s memorable SNL impression, plus Child’s own contributions to the worlds of TV, writing, and eating. There’s an upcoming food competition series on which contestants will attempt to recreate her recipes. If you want to know what happened in Child’s life, the information is there. What HBO Max’s Julia attempts to do is grasp the humanity behind the woman that so many of us now feel ownership over. Sometimes it succeeds, letting viewers soak in how remarkable her achievements were, but also the toll they must have taken on her emotionally and mentally. But for all the show’s best effort, I still wonder if it might be time to leave Julia Child alone."
    • Julia is the anti-Winning Time: "Audiences troubled by the meta touches (and perhaps the sour tone) in Winning Time may feel more at home with HBO Max’s Julia, a resolutely old-fashioned, middle-brow bio-dramedy about Julia Child, public television and the healing power of a good marriage," says Daniel Fienberg. "Julia mostly doesn’t wink or nudge (and the moments it does are easily the show’s worst), and it indulges in clichés without self-consciousness or self-awareness. It’s an earnestness that won’t be for everybody, but being conventional doesn’t preclude occasional fun bits of media-savvy insight, an abundance of well-photographed food and a towering — in every sense — central performance from Sarah Lancashire."
    • Sarah Lancashire is captivating, effortlessly disappearing into all of Julia Child’s familiar quirks: "It’s a big performance, of course; it would have to be, to capture Julia’s bearing, which made her an easy target for Dan Aykroyd back in the 1970s on Saturday Night Live," says Matthew Gilbert. "And yet her turn is emotionally articulate, too, so that the chef is never reduced to a series of amusing tics. At many points across the eight episodes of Julia, which premieres Thursday on HBO Max, Lancashire’s Julia is touching and complex. When she meets with her brusque father’s insults, or realizes she’ll never have children, or hears Betty Friedan’s accusation that she affirms musty gender roles, you can feel her deep ache — at least before she gets back on her feet."
    • 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," says Inkoo Kang, adding: "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."
    • Julia erases too much history: "Despite the moodier tinge in the series lending depth to a well-worn narrative, its persistent focus on how Child has changed the lives and cooking of many American housewives — usually white and well-off, and usually to the pleasure of their husbands — left me wanting more than a brief visit from The Femininine Mystique author Betty Friedan telling Child that she has set women back by putting them in the kitchen once again," says Alicia Kennedy. "The French Chef arrived on television at a time of great civil unrest, yet Julia barely suggests that there’s a world beyond beef bourguignon and baguettes. The most that Child engages with the social and cultural upheaval of the period is when she shows slight discomfort when brought to a gay bar with her friend James Beard, and then gets onstage with a drag queen dressed as her. Here, Beard is the one who is the life of the party — can we have a show about him, maybe? Or perhaps a show about Ruth Lockwood, the woman who helped get The French Chef on TV. In Julia, Child’s producer has effectively been erased from a history she helped create." 
    • It’s hard dissociating The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from Julia: "Both focus on women bucking convention to pave their own way," says Kristen Lopez of the series created by Mrs. Maisel producer Daniel Goldfarb. "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."
    • Julia shares The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's sensibilities and shortcomings: "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," says Caroline Framke. "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."
    • Sarah Lancashire captures Julia’s essence without delving into impersonation, while David Hyde Pierce infuses Paul with humanity and heart: "With all the previous material about Julia Child already out there," says Richard Roeper., "this is certainly not essential viewing—but it’s difficult to resist another invitation to welcome Julia Child and her story into our homes."
    • Each 45-ish-minute episode walks a line between sentimental period drama and high-toned sitcom: "Culture vultures will appreciate cameos from John Updike and James Beard, as well as the literate banter (surely, it’s no coincidence that the ensemble includes Frasier veterans)," says David Cote. "And if the banter starts to wilt, the Julia’s delectable meals never do: lemon-drenched oysters, juicy steak frites, buttery lobster, and gallons of wine and martinis."
    • Julia is a deliciously affectionate celebration of an icon: "Lancashire's Julia is a stately woman who curses and bawdily describes chicken parts, and she knows she can get away with that because she has no aspirations to be a sex symbol," says Melanie McFarland. "And Julia lives up to the popular image of Child as a bubbly, matronly professor of joie de vivre while also reminding us that she became an icon through her own effort (and financial investment, as the writers depict), and despite the obstacles placed in her path. She's also revealed to have few hang-ups, some of which are instilled in her psyche by men like her father (James Cromwell), who grudgingly puts up with his daughter's demonstrative self-reliance as he looks down on Paul. This is another facet of the show's effort to grapple with the way successful women must constantly battle sexism and patriarchal pushback. Yet another surfaces in the form of Child's discomfort with homosexuality despite her devoted friendship with James Beard (Christian Clemenson)."
    • David Hyde Pierce calls Julia Child's homophobia "confusing": “It’s confusing because in so many ways she’s an icon, or was an icon, to the gay community,” he says. “And it’s also important to note that, in my opinion, that is something that she was part of, the culture they both grew up in, in spite of their being also involved in artistic pursuits.”
    • Sarah Lancashire auditioned five times to play Julia Child -- after not formally auditioning since starting her 35-year acting career: “I was terrible at auditions,” she says, reckoning that if she was asked to do them, “I would never have worked.” Lancashire adds: “I came for Julia. She’s so beautifully unique. I could never find her in the U.K., and I think you’re only ever going to find her once in the U.S., frankly. To be playing what feels like a force of nature is a rather wonderful position to be in.”

    TOPICS: Julia, HBO Max, David Hyde Pierce, Julia Child, Sarah Lancashire