Come Back for a Second Helping of Max’s Charming ‘Julia’
Pouring your heart and an entire stick of butter into a pot of mashed potatoes is just as profound an expression of love as a hand-written poem. Julia Child knew that well. In a world that undervalued cooking as women’s work, the American authority on French cuisine mastered the art of making life more delicious. Though her heyday was the 1960s, a deep, widespread appreciation for Child and her recipes has endured into the 21st century. It can be found in SNL skits, TikTok clips of her preparing omelets, and Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance in Julie and Julia.
Our love affair with the chef who helped make food a love language continues starting Nov. 16, as Julia, the Max series starring Sarah Lancashire as Child, returns for a delightful second season.
Lancashire, an English stage and television veteran, remains utterly enchanting in the role, moving beyond an easy parody of Child’s distinctive accent and eccentric personality to create a three-dimensional human being. Julia’s relationship with husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce) remains the heart of the show; theirs is a warm and loving marriage that does not exist in a bubble. However supportive Paul is of his wife’s success, he feels the pressure of an American culture with clear ideas about who should be the primary breadwinner—and that’s to say nothing of the norms of the French countryside, where their horny peers are spending retirement risking spinal injuries during acrobatic sex sessions.
Season 2 begins against this idyllic Gallic rural landscape. Julia seems near-orgasmic as she sniffs a peach in an open-air market. The fruit seller insists that it isn’t quite ripe enough and needs to be poached in Sauternes, which Julia agrees to with playful, childish glee as she crosses two fingers behind her back. But alas, this wondrous European retreat cannot last forever. After 72 days, a phone call must be made back to reality.
As lovely as Julia and Paul’s R&R is for them, the show really springs to life again when back in the madcap world of TV—the look behind the scenes of Child’s popular 1960s cooking show, The French Chef, which occupied much of Season 1. WGBH is in free fall, filling up the airwaves with tedious shows about knitting and calisthenics. Only Julia and her hit program keep the network afloat—a theme that recurs throughout the season, as too much pressure is put on multiple women’s shoulders. Besides Julia, the weight falls on French Chef producer Alice (Brittany Bradford) and Julia’s book editor, Judith (Fiona Glascott), who’s overstretched juggling homelife and her career. (“I can do it all, and I will!” she insists, weeping.)
While the male characters are charming and deliver the zippy period one-liners with aplomb, it’s the female characters who get most of the complexity, thanks to exceptional writing and striking performances. Particular plaudits must go to Bebe Neuworth as Julia’s dear friend Avis, who could generate sizzling chemistry with an armchair, and former Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom, who joins the cast this season to delectably play The French Chef’s new director, Elaine. These are complicated women, and so too are the dynamics between them. A rift emerges between Julia and cookbook co-author Simone “Simca” Beck (Isabella Rossellini), who have diverging ideas about where the future of cuisine should go. And while Alice and Elaine find professional solidarity in one another, Julia is less convinced that her female colleagues have her best interests at heart.
In some respects, the show suffers from the same problem that its protagonist does and becomes a victim of its own success. With so many rich characters and charming performances, there isn’t quite enough space afforded to each. This “all killer, no filler” approach denies everyone a fully nourishing character arc. Even Julia herself ends up with limited screen time in a series that sees her climb from hot new TV star to national treasure, scrutinized and commodified within an inch of her life and celebrated at the White House.
And so the show and the show within the show are a little chaotic and overambitious. But they are still as joyous as a rich, buttery sauce poured over a lobster à l’Américaine, or a French peach no less divine for its imperfections. As Julia (and Julia) reminds us, things don’t have to be flawless to be delicious.
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