The Radicalism of an Untamed Appetite

A new HBO show about Julia Child explores the virtues of ambition—whatever the age.

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child, working in front of a typewriter and some papers
Seacia Pavao / HBO Max

Watching Julia, you might deduce that there’s a reason Saint Augustine likened food to sex: Both dance in a space somewhere between necessary sustenance and greedy desire. For Julia Child, the two were inextricable. “I feel I am only existing until I see you, and hug you, and eat you,” she wrote to Paul Child before they married, when she was attending cooking classes in Beverly Hills to try to mold herself into a more wifely prospect. Their marriage fed her appetite for both. Julia’s memoir, My Life in France, and the movie Julie & Julia (starring Meryl Streep in an Oscar-nominated performance as Child) have documented how voluptuously and shamelessly she embraced the pleasure that food and love gave her.

Julia, a sparkling new series on HBO Max, skips past this early period (perhaps assuming that its target audience is well acquainted with it by now) to focus on a different urge Child found herself with in midlife: the hunger for, simply, more. Julia, created and co-written by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Daniel Goldfarb, shares that series’ ebullience, along with its central conceit of a funny, privileged woman fighting to be more than a wife. (Julia eschews, thank God, the mile-a-minute monologues.) But it also presents, over eight episodes, a portrait that’s sharper and more gratifying than just that idea: a character who finds—in her 50s—that she has not only a gift, but a calling. The show’s version of Julia, played with spiky finesse by the British actor Sarah Lancashire, brings untempered hunger to joyful life. The more Julia indulges herself, the more she expands her conception of what opportunity can be. Her appetites, untamed, become not just unruly but wholly radical.

Stories about midlife awakenings tend to explore transient indulgences or vaguely spiritual quests (Julia Roberts’s newly divorced writer nibbling gelato in Eat Pray Love, Reese Witherspoon’s grieving writer contemplating her blisters in Wild). Julia expands the canon, treating professional gratification as the most evasive pleasure of all. When the series begins, Julia and Paul are in Oslo, Norway, where he’s stationed as a diplomat and she’s co-publishing a French cookbook, when they’re summoned perfunctorily back to the U.S. and Paul is pushed into retirement. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, they putter around until Julia is invited to discuss her book on public television, during a literary segment hosted by an impeccably pompous academic. Faced with blistering condescension, she makes him a three-egg omelet on live television, and—an overwhelming-for-public-television 27 fan letters from viewers later—her fame is very slowly and uncertainly ignited.

Sarah Lancashire's Julia Child on the set of her cooking show

Seacia Pavao / HBO Max

The series, like its central figure, is geared toward pleasure, tweaking the synapses with beauty, comfort, and the kind of coziness that food shows long ago made their own. Like Maisel, Julia is awash with detail and lavishly rendered: One street scene, in which Julia walks into the WBGH studios for the first time, features intricate period storefronts, a handful of vintage cars, and throngs of college students in sweater sets and penny loafers. Charles McDougall, who directed the first two episodes, uses quick cuts to absorb viewers into the world on-screen (a ticking clock, a spotlight, and an on air sign underscore the tension of Julia’s TV debut, as if her antagonist were someone more menacing than a professor of literature). More than any prestige-television show, though, Julia reminded me of Frasier, that blissful ’90s excavation of snobbery, privilege, and cultural disconnection. For one thing, it has David Hyde Pierce (playing Paul Child), Bebe Neuwirth (as Julia’s friend Avis DeVoto), and a fondness for slapstick and physical comedy. But like Frasier, Julia also dances around a question that its warm tone resists fully digging into: Whom do art and culture lift up, and whom do they exclude? Is Julia’s mission to elevate American cooking inspiring women or just raising the bar for wifehood even higher?

A show in the ’90s could get away with a certain kind of myopia. But no series can explore ambition today without needing to reckon with the many flaws in the girlboss model. Julia sometimes seems so busy anticipating criticism of its subject that it loses sight of her more human complexity. To counter charges that this is yet another show about an upper-middle-class white woman, it has created the character of Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford), a young Black producer at WBGH who discovers Julia and advocates for her show, and who’s constantly undermined and overlooked by her male associates. It positions Julia as the indomitable leader of what she describes as “a confederacy of women, an estrogen safety net,” while the real Child, by all accounts, was alarmed by groups of only women, which she supposedly likened to “a clacking hen house.” In a late episode, the show imagines a blistering critique of Julia’s work from a noted second-wave feminist, briefly miring her in self-doubt. It’s Paul who rallies her by reminding her that her responsibility isn’t to please everyone. Even a few brightened days are better than none.

Anchoring the show, though, is a performance that sometimes challenges Julia’s lightness of touch. Lancashire, who was a soap star in England in the ’90s before having a dramatic renaissance later in her career with the acclaimed series Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax, plays Julia less as a naturally convivial and generous soul than as someone long practiced in sweetening people to get what she wants. “One of the advantages of looking like me,” she tells her skeptical male producers, “is that you learn at a young age not to take no for an answer.” Her desire to be on television is painted in the show as innate, selfish, inexplicable. She presents it to Paul as an altruistic mission, a journey to share the rich lessons of their life in France with American women tethered to their kitchens. But for her, it’s also deeply personal—another newly discovered appetite she can’t imagine not feeding. “At this stage of my life,” she says, “I don’t want to feel invisible. I want to feel relevant. I want to be relevant.”

Despite the awkward ways Julia massages history, it gets one thing absolutely right, in making the case that gratifying one’s desires can be a revolutionary act for women all by itself. For everything she did to define the American kitchen, Julia’s avowal of ambition and food for desire’s sake still feels startlingly progressive. “I want to do it,” she says in one scene when her TV project is in flux. “I don’t care if it is nuts or a terrible business decision … I want it more than anything.” And, the series suggests, that might be enough.