What are you watching? ‘Julia’

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After having seen “Julie and Julia,” the Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep, and a raft of documentaries about Julia Child, I watched “Julia,” an eight-part series from HBO Max, and was pleased to find that Julia Child was a gift that keeps on giving. 

On one hand, the series was like comfort food for me. Not only was it literally about delicious comfort food, but having spent many years living in the Boston area, where much of “Julia” was filmed, it was comforting to see some of the old landmarks featured, like Savenor’s Market, the Union Oyster House, and Jordan Marsh.

But overall I thoroughly enjoyed the series, and got a taste for what an uphill climb Julia had, working in a media she knew nothing about and working in a totally male-dominated, pre-#metoo business environment.

Playing the role of Julia was British actor Sarah Lancashire, who you may recall from her role in “The Last Tango in Halifax,” and she plays the part of Julia in a more subdued manner than what we’re used to seeing, which I found made Julia a more believable character. Ironically, Lancashire said she’d never seen Julia on TV, having grown up in England, where it wasn’t that popular at the time. This may have made her the only person in the Western hemisphere who had never seen Julia in her prime.

Julia’s husband Paul is played by David Hyde Pierce, Niles from the series “Frazier.” Paul, who has been forced into retirement from the Foreign Service, plays the role with great affection for Julia while feeling a sense of rejection as Julia’s fame increases. 

When Julia went into WGBH, the public television station in Cambridge, to promote her cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” she was determined to not just talk, but to put on a cooking demonstration; she wanted to show viewers how to cook an omelet, which leads to a hysterical scene of her cooking crouched over a hotplate on live TV. It also leads to the station getting scores of letters of encouragement, something GBH was not used to getting in those days. So the station agreed to give “The French Chef,” as it was called, a time slot. But the station put little into the show. Not even a production budget — Julia and Paul paid for everything, including the food. 

It’s hard to underestimate how hardscrabble a production “The French Chef” was and how ill-equipped Julia was. Much has been made of Julia dropping a chicken on the floor and then carrying on.

But what she lacked in technical know-how, she more than made up for in charisma and culinary knowledge. To get Julia to look at the right camera, the crew put a hand puppet on the camera she should look at.

The thing that floored me was that Paul and Julia didn’t even have a TV set when the show began in the early ’60s, but they had a TV show. 

From these humble beginnings the show took off, was syndicated nationally, and became a benchmark in the history of television. 

But toward the end of “Julia,” the series takes a rather bizarre twist. On a trip to California, Julia and James Beard, the flagrantly gay cookbook author, form a mutual admiration society capped off by a trip to a drag club.

And it takes a dark turn when Julia has an encounter with “The Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan that makes her question whether she’s setting the women’s movement back by being on a cooking show. 

But thankfully Julia stays true to her vision, and millions of people around the world are better off for it.