Child's Play: 'Julia' Bites Off More Than It Can Chew

A new scripted series about Julia Child seeks to place this beloved host of TV cooking shows in the vanguard of the cultural and social changes that shook the nation and the world in the 1960s.

This seems like a mighty heavy burden with which to saddle Julia Child, a cookbook author who simply wanted to share her love of food with others.

The show is titled “Julia” and it is due to start streaming Thursday on HBO Max.

The show tells the story of Julia Child through a 21st-century lens that frames her experiences within the confines of today’s cultural and revisionist obsessions.

In the process, the series transforms Julia Child into the cooking-show version of Rosa Parks or Mrs. Maisel.



The press material for the show positions it thusly: “Through Julia’s life and her singular joie de vivre, the series explores a pivotal time in American history -- the emergence of public television as a new social institution, feminism and the women’s movement, the nature of celebrity and America’s cultural evolution.”

But wait, there’s more. “At its heart, the series is a portrait of a loving marriage with a shifting power dynamic.”

My goodness! Julia Child did all that? I have a feeling she would be very surprised to hear this.

The series starts in 1961 as Julia gets her first taste of fame after her first cookbook, “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking,” becomes a surprise bestseller.

Two years later, when she was 50, her first TV show, “The French Chef,” premiered locally on Boston’s public TV station, WGBH, and the rest was history.

As everyone knows, she spent the rest of her life writing more books, hosting more shows and basically enjoying fame and fortune as the best-known food personality in America. She died in 2012 just shy of her 92nd birthday.

Meanwhile, despite its clothes, cigarettes and old cars, the show’s early 1960s time frame is at times inauthentic and unconvincing.

One of the problems is the incongruity of some of the language the show’s writers have composed for their characters.

For example, in one scene in the first episode, the fictional Julia Child (played by Sarah Lancashire, pictured above) casually uses the f-word in the same way it is casually bandied about today in everyday speech.

The word is not uttered in anger, but is simply tucked inside a sentence in a conversation Julia is having over breakfast with her husband, Paul Child (David Hyde Pierce).

Hearing it coming out of the mouth of Julia Child is jarring. It is also unnecessary and possibly inaccurate that Julia Child would use such a word in such an offhand way. Others in the show use it in the same way.

In addition, at one point in the premiere, fictional Julia uses the phrase “back in the day” in a conversation with a cousin (played by Bebe Neuwirth). In another scene, Julia declares that her ambition is to be “relevant.” These strike me as modern-day constructs.

In “Julia,” Julia Child is positioned as a plucky woman who is beset with male chauvinists who thoughtlessly stand in the way of her ambitions.

These include her husband and a coterie of male executives at WGBH who are portrayed as particularly arrogant and snobbish as they dismiss Julia’s proposal to build a cooking show around her.

Maybe this was true in some respects for Julia Child or maybe it wasn’t. It is also true that the history of television is littered with wrong-headed decisions in which arrogant executives rejected TV show ideas that later emerged as huge hits somewhere else.

Such decisions are usually just idiotic blunders, not nefarious schemes by male chauvinists to deny women access to the airwaves.

In the end, the show bites off more than it can chew. Besides, the story of Julia Child is a great story all on its own. Why encumber it by trying to portray her as a civil-rights hero?

“Julia” starts streaming on Thursday (March 31) on HBO Max.

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