The first thing to know about “Julia” is that as Julia Child, Sarah Lancashire is fantastic. The British actress, best known in the States for “Happy Valley” and “Last Tango in Halifax,” is captivating, effortlessly disappearing into all of Julia’s familiar quirks — the melodic Dame Edna voice, the towering presence, the sometimes boisterous sense of humor.
It’s a big performance, of course; it would have to be, to capture Julia’s bearing, which made her an easy target for Dan Aykroyd back in the 1970s on “Saturday Night Live.” And yet her turn is emotionally articulate, too, so that the chef is never reduced to a series of amusing tics. At many points across the eight episodes of “Julia,” which premieres Thursday on HBO Max, Lancashire’s Julia is touching and complex. When she meets with her brusque father’s insults, or realizes she’ll never have children, or hears Betty Friedan’s accusation that she affirms musty gender roles, you can feel her deep ache — at least before she gets back on her feet.
For a moment in the first episode, I wondered if I could take a full season of Lancashire’s dulcet tones. By the end, I was ready for more.
The second thing to know about “Julia” is that it is, essentially, a sitcom with dramedic leanings. Julia’s story has been fictionalized enough to fit it — or, really, cram it — into the familiar tropes of the genre. It reminds me of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” in some ways — it’s no surprise that “Julia” was created by “Maisel” producer Daniel Goldfarb — as it tracks a female entertainer starting out in the early 1960s who has to overcome plenty of resistance, primarily from men. The tone and scripts are at times so stubbornly upbeat and snappy that it’s unable to make sense of our heroine’s flaws.
Until later in her life, for example, Julia was a homophobe. “Julia” raises two gay-related moments, but each of them ultimately goes nowhere. The first, when she sees a former Smith College friend who alludes to a lesbian encounter with her, quickly fizzles into ambiguity, with Julia unwilling to take in the thought. The second, when James Beard (Christian Clemenson) takes her to a San Francisco drag club where she sees a performer doing a version of her, has her shocked but then quickly rising to the occasion and joining the performer on stage. The sequence comes off as a “cute bit” unhindered by reality.
Nearly every TV comedy has a warm ensemble of friends who can tease one another with no love lost. On “Julia,” that ensemble includes Julia’s husband, Paul (David Hyde Pierce), who takes a short while to adjust to his wife’s ambitions; Julia’s friend Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), who finds that helping Julia with her show pries her out of her grief for her late husband; Julia’s book editor, the remarkable Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), who sees the cultural value of Julia’s show; and Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford), a young producer invented for “Julia” who is Black and faces a few — although perhaps not enough — racial aggressions of the time period.
They form the team that takes care of her, as the men at WGBH (and there is plenty of our local PBS station on the show) roll their eyes about her — until she’s a star, that is. “Julia” is pleasant, easy to watch, and, of course, filled with delicious-looking food and the obsession with it. Don’t worry, you can’t gain weight from watching.