The pilot opens shortly after the publication of Child’s seminal first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After a doctor’s visit reveals that Child, in her early fifties, is going through menopause, she starts to become preoccupied with what she sees as a lack of legacy and purpose. In a roundabout but ultimately convincing way, this leads her to television, and ultimately her groundbreaking cooking show, “The French Chef.”
“At this stage of my life, I want to feel relevant. I want to BE relevant,” she tells a friend; a through-line which echoes throughout the show and across the entirety of the cast. Julia’s affectionate husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce), a retired diplomat turned artist wavering in a liminal space between hobbyist and professional, finds his discontent with his own situation bubbling to the surface as his wife’s star rises. The Childs’ close friend Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), a sharp-tongued widow who’s been living in black for long enough for it to have become a core component of her personality, starts to wonder if she truly wants to spend however many years she has left in mourning.
At the local public television station, WGBH, ambitious young associate producer Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) is hungry to make a name for herself, to be someone and do something; she is the first—and in the beginning, only—champion of Julia’s idea for a show because she quickly imagines that it could be her “something.” Her primary opponent is fellow producer Russell Morash (Fran Kranz), similarly determined to do great things, and equally convinced that producing a cooking show would be heading in precisely the opposite direction of his lofty aspirations. The way in which certain core themes are reflected across the entire cast of characters without sliding into repetitiveness is, narratively, one of the show’s greatest accomplishments.
Overall, “Julia” is impeccably cast—there is not a bad performance to be found—but the centerpiece is British actress Sarah Lancashire’s performance as Julia. Lancashire has previously displayed her acting chops in series such as “Happy Valley,” but never before has she taken on a part quite so transformative. And it’s the sort of transformative performance buoyed by hair and makeup but rooted in something deeper—Lancashire is practically unrecognizable here, and yet her version of Julia does not feel like it’s simply mimicking the real-life Child, but a unique iteration of such a larger-than-life legend. It’s a particularly smart course of action because Lancashire is, of course, not just competing with the memory of the real-life Child, an iconic screen presence, but Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance in “Julie & Julia.” Lancashire’s version of Child stands not just on its own, but rises above the towering legacies it must contend with, which is no small feat.