Roush Review: ‘Julia’ Is a Four-Course Banquet of Sheer Joy

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Friendly warning: Do not watch the new HBO Max series Julia on an empty stomach.

You’ll want to savor every sumptuous dish prepared by legendary TV personality and French Chef host Julia Child, grandly and giddily embodied by the wonderful British actress Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax). It also helps to have an appetite for living, because few series are so generous in serving up a heaping platter of pure joy.

“All you have to do is plunge in,” Julia tells her rapt audience in 1963 as she ends her first TV season on Boston’s WGBH and beyond with a celebration of the classic soufflé. “That’s the key not only to the kitchen but to life itself.”

With a light comic flair that only enhances the breathtaking depth of its midlife love story, Julia is a four-course delight, dramatizing with the usual creative liberties her growing pains in the low-budget world of fledgling public TV. Her pioneering experiment in on-camera culinary arts, born of her revolutionary book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, makes Child an unlikely media star with her ungainly frame and high voice, punctuated by sudden barks of laughter as she navigates her primitive set.

Lancashire captures all of Julia’s larger-than-life qualities, the earthy as well as the regal, as she defies skeptics with an unpretentious gusto that charmed and inspired generations of at-home devotees. “One of the advantages of looking like me is that you learn at a young age not to take no for an answer,” she tells her wary bosses at WGBH.

Julia Season 1 David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Lancashire

(Credit: Seacia Pavao / HBO Max)

Her ambitious producer Russ Morash (Fran Kranz), who’d rather be making serious civil-rights documentaries, doesn’t see the potential at first, until his underappreciated assistant Alice (Brittany Bradford) — a composite character who’s not only female but Black so doubly invisible — sells The French Chef to other hungry markets. Publishing giant Blanche Knopf (the always-expert Judith Light) thinks Julia’s loyal rising-star editor, Judith (Fiona Glascott, a find from Ireland), is wasting her time on a mere cookbook author.

But Julia has an ace in the hole: her No. 1 fan, husband Paul (the divinely droll David Hyde Pierce), an unhappily retired diplomat who rallies to her mission after initially dismissing television as a fad. Their mutual respect and tender love, tested but later strengthened by her newfound fame, is so warmly depicted that Julia may qualify as the year’s most romantic series. Another plum Frasier alum, Bebe Neuwirth as the Childs’ widowed friend Avis, provides yet more essential moral (and alcoholic) support.

Julia lays on the hero worship a bit thick at times, and the fictional Alice’s romantic and professional subplots seem pasted in from a different series, but who cares when the entree is this tasty? All of her support team is there for Julia when her confidence is shaken late in the series by an encounter with fearsome feminist Betty Friedan. Enter a fellow future PBS icon to assure her that she’s fine just the way she is.

No argument here. Julia feeds the soul to the brim.

Julia, Series Premiere (three episodes), Thursday, March 31, HBO Max

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