"Julia takes us through the steps of how this improvisation became The French Chef, the long-running and iconic cooking show, and the various eggs that had to be cracked along the way"stevepb / pixabay.com

In TV series Julia, Sarah Lancashire steps into the size 12 shoes of TV-chef pioneer Julia Child. While promoting her ground-breaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking on public television station WGBH-TV, Child cooked up a French omelette live on air, narrating each step in her distinctive, shrill trill. Julia takes us through the steps of how this improvisation became The French Chef, the long-running and iconic cooking show, and the various eggs that had to be cracked along the way. Lancashire inhabits the role absolutely, ascending the dizzy heights of Julia’s personality while never allowing it to become caricature.

“Julia presents a difficulty in making meaningful social commentary”

Julia is an unstoppable force, but Lancashire is just as adept at portraying the moments when she comes up against immovable objects. Her realisation that she’s reached the menopause without having had a child, the discovery that her father has died, and the moment Betty Friedan accuses Julia of upholding the ‘feminine mystique’ rather than dispelling it, are made effective by their stark contrast with her otherwise uninterrupted ebullience. Julia doesn’t have a ‘TV personality’, playing only herself both in front of and away from the camera; when her bombastic bubble bursts, we feel as though we’re not only seeing ‘behind the scenes’ footage, but something even more intimate than that. This intimacy is completed by her on-screen companion David Hyde Pierce. As her husband Paul, Julia’s equal but opposite, his softer, subtler flavour balances Julia’s potency on the palette.

Julia Child gives the KUHT audience a cooking demonstrationKUHT / Wikimedia Commons

Quite effortlessly, Lancashire and Pierce nuance the gender roles which, especially in the locale of the suburban General Electric kitchen, are often perceived to be frozen solid. Their respective non-conformity to gendered expectations is brought to the fore by the intrusion of Julia’s ‘Pop’, the embodiment of American manhood and rugged individualism. Though Julia deftly nuances the central cast’s individual narratives and the stereotypes they are negotiating, it struggles somewhat to grapple with the broader social themes emerging in the early 60s. The series struggles to show-not-tell; it often resorts to clumsy dialogic social commentary on gender and race in the workplace, speaking directly at the audience rather than allowing us to interpret for ourselves.

“Julia doesn’t have a ‘TV personality’, playing only herself both in front of and away from the camera”

In Alice Naman, a fictionalised French Chef producer, the series attempts to explore the experience of women of colour in the workplace. Alice, however, is neither developed as an individual nor embedded in any historical context to a sufficient extent to achieve any meaningful social commentary beyond a rehashing of tired tropes. Julia’s hand in her promotion smacks of white saviour-ism. Julia’s centrality to Alice’s narrative is illustrative of the problem the series faces in trying to be both a biopic and a site of social commentary at once — the need to keep Julia in front of the camera, literally, means that subplots like Alice’s remain mere side dishes to her main course.

Perhaps incidentally, the series’ flaws go some way to answering some of the more interesting questions that the story poses, over television as a means of cultural transmission. In The French Chef, Julia remoulds her work with the OSS and her husband’s with the United States Information Agency into ‘cultural diplomacy’, a phrase she and her editor use to convince Paul of the show’s efficacy. But just how successful is this ‘cultural diplomacy’ — and what do we understand by the phrase? Is Julia successful in transforming the cooking habits of the American housewife? What about transforming the eating habits of the American public by introducing them to French cuisine, rendering her cooking show a ‘travel programme’ wherein ‘the food itself is a passport’? Or does her role as a ‘cultural broker’, translating the French language and moulding the French cuisine to the American kitchen, fog up the ‘window’ she believes she’s opening on French culture?

“Paul’s softer, subtler flavour balances Julia’s potency on the palette”

It is unclear how many people are actually only watching the show for the idiosyncratic chef herself. Julia presents a difficulty in making meaningful social commentary with Child at the centre of the narrative. The series somewhat self-referentially ponders the questions that the mise en abyme of her cooking show within another show throws up: can television be an effective medium for social commentary and cultural transmission? With its reliance on individual personalities, can it ever carry this through to an audience?


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Both the content and form of Julia ask interesting questions about whether television is an appropriate site for social commentary or cultural brokering. The series eventually answers in the affirmative; of course, there is the cautious caveat that the need for an engaging personality to broker this culture may make meaningful engagement with the more serious issues difficult. A sense of community, rather than understanding of another culture, may be what’s ultimately achieved. All this is embedded within a well-written, excellently performed and visually captivating historical comedy, which is well worth the watch. Whatever we take from the series, at least we’ll learn how to make a cracking omelette.