Sarah Lancashire stars in the TV show “Julia,” streaming on HBO Max. (CNS photo/Seacia Pavao, Warner Media)

John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK — Beloved chef Julia Child (1912-2004) long ago secured her place in the history of television as well as in that of American culture, at least insofar as cuisine is concerned.

Indeed, the kitchen from her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home has been a feature of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History since 2001.

But the success of Child’s long-running public television program, “The French Chef,” was by no means a foregone conclusion. The travails she endured in the lead-up to the show’s 1963 premiere provide the basis for the early episodes of “Julia,” a blend of drama and comedy currently streaming on HBO Max in eight hour-long installments.

British actress Sarah Lancashire delivers a multidimensional portrayal of Child. She captures, by turns, not only Child’s famously quirky mannerisms and speech, but also the charming ways in which she managed to endear herself to those around her and the self-doubt by which she was apparently plagued.

When that sets in, Child gets reliable emotional support from her longtime spouse, Paul (David Hyde Pierce). Yet the disdain Paul, a retired diplomat-turned-artist, feels for TV is one of the first hurdles Julia — already the celebrated co-author of 1961’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” — must overcome.

Other challenges include “Mad Men”-era chauvinism, embodied by director Russell Morash (Fran Kranz) and other staff members at Boston’s WGBH, the station on which “The French Chef” would first air, as well as a widespread attitude deeming a cooking show inherently frivolous.

Helping Child to overcome these difficulties is young WGBH associate producer Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford). As both an African American and a woman in a then-male dominated industry, Naman is in need of some back-up herself, and her relationship with Child becomes increasingly one of mutual encouragement, with Child gently nurturing Naman’s confidence.

The circle of those cheering Child on is rounded out by two book editors, Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott) and Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth). Taken collectively with Naman, a composite character, these real-life figures highlight another aspect of Child’s legacy”: her subtle boosting of female empowerment.

This chronicle of Child’s bumpy road to stardom is, overall, as toothsome as her coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon. Yet, on the basis of the first two episodes reviewed, it’s a treat suited to grown-ups only.

Along with a fair amount of less-than-savory talk in the dialogue, comically frisky bedroom scenes featuring husband and wife as well as the recurring theme of childless Julia’s reaction to the arrival of menopause are not appropriate for the whole family. These elements are, however, presented in a sufficiently restrained style to keep the series appealing to most adults.

The presentation of Child’s resoundingly successful marriage is made all the more interesting by Pierce’s predictably skillful depiction of a character at least as nuanced as that of the woman by whom he would eventually be overshadowed in the public mind. Once converted to the idea of “The French Chef,” Paul works tirelessly — though not always wisely — to make it succeed.

An elegant piece of programming, “Julia” proves yet again that Child’s life and career provide a rich vein for fact-based storytelling. For her longstanding fans as well as newcomers to her narrative, it offers a thoroughly engaging retrospective.

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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.