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Julia series two review: Sarah Lancashire returns in this delicious, delectable treat of a TV show

The series doesn’t have much bite – but there’s plenty to savour anyhow

Nick Hilton
Thursday 04 January 2024 22:00 GMT
Julia Season 2 trailer

To eat well, you need two things: a palate and a set of teeth. The first allows you to differentiate between tastes, to ascertain what’s good and what’s bad, and the latter avoids your nourishment being limited to soup and blancmange. Both are also, in a way, the ingredients necessary for good TV. And Sky’s Julia, which stars Sarah Lancashire as the legendary cookery presenter Julia Child, has the former in abundance. But now in its second season, can Julia add some bite to the story of one of the 20th century’s most quintessentially cuddly figures?

Julia returns to find its heroine – the woman who taught America to cook – now a household name. Her cooking show, The French Chef, has aired to enormous ratings success, but Julia herself is absent from the adulation. She’s in France, working on a new series of recipes with her cantankerous collaborator Simca (Isabella Rossellini) while her producers at WGBH, and publishers at Knopf, eagerly anticipate her return. But things are not going entirely smoothly in Europe. “You’re always chasing something Julia,” Simca despairs. “Chasing something that you say Americans want!” But for all that Simca knows about French cuisine, it’s Julia who understands the American public of the 1960s.

“Who doesn’t love Julia Child?” asks a new arrival, Stockard Channing’s wealthy widow, Frances. It is a question that the show repeatedly poses. Both Simca and Child’s husband Paul (an excellent David Hyde Pierce) have had to learn to live in her physical (Child was 6ft 2in) and metaphorical shadow. Whether she’s reconnecting with her admiring former tutors at Le Cordon Bleu or presenting her show live from the White House, life comes as easily to Child as flakes of puff pastry being pulled away from the impeccably steamed flesh of a sea bass. And Lancashire – taking on a role previously played by another goliath, Meryl Streep, in 2009’s Julie & Julia – is equally unflappable. None of Child’s unusual trademarks – her stature, say, or her voice and accent – distract from the emotional clarity of Lancashire’s acting.

It is one of many fine performances in the show. Fiona Glascott is superb as Julia’s elegant, frustrated publisher, Judith Jones, while Fran Kranz, Brittany Bradford and newcomer Rachel Bloom add depth to her production team back home in Boston. The show’s creator, Daniel Goldfarb, was previously a producer on The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and evidently has learnt much from that show’s zippy presentation of life in the Sixties. Widening the political lens to encompass women’s liberation, race relations, the anti-war movement, and the era’s burgeoning sexual complexity ensures that while the food remains the centrepiece, there are plenty more delicacies on display.

This is key to avoiding the show becoming toothless because, at times, its gentle tone and indulgent aesthetics can become somewhat soporific, like the languorous period after consuming a three-course meal. Filming in France for the first time (original plans to shoot on the continent for season one were scuppered by you-know-what), the show’s design is rich; the presentation, deliberate and delightful. The interpersonal friction, however – between Judith and her demanding boss Blanche (Judith Light), or Avis (Bebe Neuwirth) navigating the search for love after her husband’s death – is all rather low stakes. It melts in the mouth, sure, but the texture is smooth. A plotline involving the FBI digging up Child’s personal history attempts to add more of a chomp, but like Mickey Mouse being dragged by the nose to a freshly baked windowsill pumpkin pie, the scent of the food continues to draw viewers in.

In the end, the show prioritises taste over bite. But that’s no bad thing. “This is smoke and mirrors disguised as flavour,” laments Simca at one point, staring disdainfully at an over-complicated dish. But Julia is the real thing: a show that honestly wants to appeal to its audience’s better instincts, their love of finer things and fuller hearts. And like some of the most delicious dishes on earth – from panna cotta to foie gras – you won’t even need to put your dentures in to enjoy it.

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