From the opening moments of Julia, it is clear what the show plans to be: An exploration of a woman we previously didn't put much consideration into previously and providing greater context about why we should have paid more notice to her for what was often under-appreciated trailblazing work.
It is all part of the current trend of shows that reconsider famous women. If we are to use its mission statement of having us reconsider the work of TV chef Julia Child, a woman who practically invented the TV cooking show and many of the techniques used to convey the cooking process on screen to audiences, the show is an absolute success. Just a handful of episodes in, I'm immediately drawn into the world of Julia Child, have appreciated her for the work she has done, and am now ready to celebrate all things Julia Child.
But does the show need to be more than that? In the first couple of episodes, we are certainly introduced to rich and engaging characters. But the dramatic stakes are actually pretty low. I don't really feel that I have a good sense of who any of the characters are outside of their work or relationship to Mrs Child. Andf the show has a really strong sense of the Mary Sue about it - Julia Child in this show is a woman who could do nothing wrong and every step she takes seems to work out for her. Are we telling the biography of a real life woman here, or is it a dramatic retelling of Mary Poppins?
This series seems to operate in the opposite way to the recent raft of shows about grifters taking advantage of the changing social strata, as seen in shows like The Dropout, Super Pumped, and WeCrashed. Those shows are about delighting in the obscentiy that social structures allow these monsters to thrive. This is about taking a figure from the more distant recent past and showing what good can come from a woman challenging the system. And while that messaging certainly meets a public benefit, there are elements of the show which make me uncomfortable. Like that grifter class of shows, Julia is more interested in telling a story that supports modern thinking and fulfilment than it is in reporting a show with historical accuracy. At what point are you doing the life of the person being considered a disservice by recontextualising a story for it to meet modern standards.
The most eggregious example of this is the creation of Alice Naman, a young African American TV producer who helps Julia get her show on the air. The rest of the ensemble of core characters in the show are all based on real people who all happen to be rather white. Naman replaces real-life TV producer Ruth Lockwood. There's no justification in Lockwood's erasure, which is in itself a disservice to a show that is seeking to better appreciate trailblazing women. The only reason it seems to have been done is to make the show more palatable for a modern viewer who might otherwise feel uncomfortable by the complete lack of diversity in the show's primary cast.
Like with recent series The Dropout, HBO Max's Julia is a thoroughly entertaining show. You'll feel great watching it. It's absorbing, the cast is all incredibly winning, and you will have a much stronger appreciation for the work of Julia Child by the end. But what you won't have is an approximation of the real life Julia Child and the actual struggles and successes she went through to get her show to the air. There's just too much in the show that has been confected.
Is it a bad thing that the show takes such liberties in order to get the viewer to engage with the subject matter? Maybe not. But at a certain stage you have to wonder why even adapt a real persons life to the screen - why not just invent the entirety of the story and bake it from scratch?
Julia is streaming now on HBO Max in the US and on BINGE in Australia.