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HBO series captures Julia Child's joy and mastery in the kitchen


This is FRESH AIR. On Thursday, HBO Max streams the first of three episodes of a new, eight-part, weekly drama series called "Julia." It's about Julia Child and how she came to pioneer the TV cooking show with her 1960s public television series, "The French Chef." Sarah Lancashire, who co-stars as Caroline in the British series "Last Tango In Halifax," stars as Julia with David Hyde Pierce as her husband Paul. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has this review.


JULIA CHILD: Hello, I'm Julia Child. Welcome to "The French Chef" and the first show on our series on French cooking. We're going to make beef bourguignon, beef stew in red wine. And...

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That's the real Julia Child introducing the first recipe and the first episode of her new cooking series on the local Boston public TV station, WGBH. The year was 1963. Julia Child had co-authored a cookbook two years earlier called "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking," an achievement that was dramatized in the delightful 2009 movie "Julie And Julia." That film starred Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Stanley Tucci as her loving and supportive husband, Paul. This HBO Max series could be considered an unofficial sequel and a wonderful one.

The eight episodes of "Julia" tell the story of how Julia Child brought her cookbook recipes and her enthusiasm for demystifying French cooking to television. The series creator is Daniel Goldfarb, who previously demonstrated his skills with mid-century period pieces with his work as a writer-producer on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." He and writer-producer Natalia Temesgen tell the story of Julia's entry into TV, and tell it well precisely because they tell it slowly. And like the movie, they focus a lot on the very loving relationship between Paul and Julia Child. Sarah Lancashire, who plays Caroline on the British series "Last Tango In Halifax," stars as Julia. And David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles on "Frasier," is her husband, Paul. Their scenes together - whether they're eating, cuddling or arguing - are a delight. This series isn't just about the joy of cooking. It's about the joy of loving and of mutual support.

The TV series "Julia" covers the first season of the French chef, but takes its time, with enough detail, to squeeze comedy and drama out of all the detours and roadblocks. There's snobbishness in play here, but also sexism and racism. A low-level GBH staffer named Alice, played by Brittany Bradford, notices how much fan mail Julia Child got after her brief appearance on their talk show featuring authors. She supports Julia's idea of shooting a pilot for a proposed TV series based on her cookbook. But the station's leading producer isn't as enthusiastic. He thinks public TV is meant for loftier things. And more practically, he's generated a proposed budget which shows it's unworkable. The producer, Russ Morash, is played by Fran Kranz from "Dollhouse." In Episode 3, he calls staffer Alice and aspiring hopeful TV personality Julia into his office to deliver the bad news and the cold, hard figures.


FRAN KRANZ: (As Russ) Well, you tried to wrestle the numbers into submission. But the cold, hard truth is that they don't add up. The costs are too considerable. Yeah.

SARAH LANCASHIRE: (As Julia) How considerable?

KRANZ: (As Russ) I mean, well, I could build you a set, but then we'd have to worry about covering food and labor. And it's a lot, mucho.

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia) Well, what's a lot?

KRANZ: (As Russ) Yeah.

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia) I can do that.

KRANZ: (As Russ) Excuse me?

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia) Yes. I'll pay for it. I'll cover those costs.

KRANZ: (As Russ) Look; I know you're disappointed...

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia) Oh, no, no. No, I'm not disappointed. This is actually exciting. If money is our only concern, I won't let it stand in our way.

KRANZ: (As Russ) Now, look...

BRITTANY BRADFORD: (As Alice) Julia, this is wonderful.

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia, laughter).

BRADFORD: (As Alice) You're sure?

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia) Yes. Let's do it.

BIANCULLI: The first three episodes of "Julia" are shown the day the series premieres, with the rest following weekly. I've seen all eight. And I adore them. Several times, I laughed out loud, a credit not only to the script but to the performers. And "Julia" has a supremely confident cast. Co-stars include Bebe Neuwirth, who has many sharply comic scenes, reuniting her with her former "Fraser" cohort, David Hyde Pierce. And guest stars Isabella Rossellini, James Cromwell and Judith Light all get time to play and shine. And Christian Clemenson, I should note, deserves special mention for his unforgettable guest performance as fellow chef James Beard.

There's a lot more to Julia Child's story. And I hope HBO Max continues with more seasons of "Julia." Season 1 ends before her national success, before she wins a Peabody and an Emmy, and long before Dan Aykroyd lampoons her hilariously on the first season of "Saturday Night Live." I'd happily watch all of that and more if HBO Max decides to cook up more years of "Julia." Rewatching the first season of the French chef, those old black-and-white episodes with the real Julia Child, helped get me through the first months of the pandemic two years ago. And watching this new "Julia" series now is just as emotionally fulfilling.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. On tomorrow's show, we discuss the history of surgery. Medical historian Ira Rutkow takes us from the days when barbers did most operations and patients died in appalling numbers through critical advances, like anesthesia and washing hands and sterilizing instruments to avoid infections. His book is "Empire Of The Scalpel." I hope you'll join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "GROOVIN' HIGH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.