There are shows that work for a first season with exceptional performances, which is not limited to the lead, and interesting storylines that eventually fade into a stage where they struggle to find their purpose in the second season. When a series has an interesting character, but not an interesting story to pair them with, it can make episodes feel superfluously ornate. This is the case with MAX’s Julia, now in its second season, facing disappointing results with eight episodes that feel bloated with forced arcs for characters within Julia’s inner circle as the series struggles to find purpose for them outside of the titular chef.
The first season of the series introduced Sarah Lancashire’s Julia Childs, a performance so delectable it could be mistaken for a rich dessert, and her ascension to television stardom for her series The French Chef. Everyone around Julia adores her, and rightfully so. She’s charming and lovable, funny and kind, talented yet humble (eventually). She makes everyone laugh with ease and even through the tribulations of garnering the series order for her show, she managed to persevere with an attitude that anyone struggling with impatience would be envious of. In season two of Julia, her loving husband Paul (Emmy winner David Hyde Pierce) is still one of the nicest men on the small screen, looking upon his wife like a statue crafted by the hands of gods. The scenes between these two are delightful and full of love, a pure feeling they both share.
When the season begins, Julia is in Paris developing recipes for a sequel to her popular cookbook, so Avis (Emmy winner Bebe Neuwirth) and Alice (Brittany Bradford) are back in the States working on their respective roles to better the show. Upon Russ’ (Fran Kranz) decision to move onto something else, Alice is faced with the task of replacing their director, to which she employs Elaine Levitch (Golden Globe winner Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), a woman with creative ideas that Julia immediately distrusts. Bloom’s addition to the series is charming, a performer that’s able to dive into a story naturally. Her performance is one of the better parts of the new episodes. The season doesn’t attempt to draw viewers in with any new ideas, mainly recycling the charm of the first outing by allowing Lancashire free rein to burst into scenes and take them over.
Lancashire’s abilities are not to be doubted, but relying on her performance has allowed the series to slow down, the plot almost grinding to a halt. While the machinations of The French Chef’s development were enticing in the first season, the only instances of this in the second season being Elaine creating solutions to problems no one knew existed. While watching a taping, Elaine notices that raising the camera closer to eye level with Julia looks better; it’s a small move of brilliance that impresses everyone. Other than this, there aren’t many scenes of The French Chef being filmed, which was a highlight of the first season that allow the titular character room to just exist. It showcased her personality while ingraining in audiences an understanding of what made Julia Childs so insanely likable, and the scenes of her show being filmed stood out due to the quick nature of the set and the characters’ relationships flourishing in that environment. It’s a missed opportunity to not see more of that since Julia is in France at the beginning of the season, arguably spending too much time there before coming back to America.
The series pushes plots through without the existence of an actual narrative outside of Julia’s traversion through France’s elite restaurants. The series is built around Lancashire’s performance and finds itself sputtering when drifting away from her for too much time. The cast is reliable, but the stories around them don’t hold enough weight to substantiate so much time given to trite storylines, such as Avis finding a new beau and their public affection bothering everyone. Even with only eight episodes (all of which were provided to critics for review), the season feels like it outstayed its welcome by the halfway mark and plateaued in quality after that. However, the aforementioned relationship between Julia and Paul still makes headway for being remarkably adorable to see and is always welcome. While the rest of the show has aspects that could be worked on with the characters, the bond between this couple resonates deeply because of their obvious love and affection for one another. When Julia is told something secretive about Paul a few episodes in that disrupts her trust, it’s genuinely nerve-wracking when understanding their relationship to that point.
Judith (Fiona Glascott) is doing exactly what she said she’d do in last season’s finale: she is now spending her time working herself to death by taking Blanche’s (Emmy nominee Judith Light) workload as well as her own due to Blanche’s failing eyesight. It’s an admirable decision from the character, but what transpires is the exact cliché that could have been predicted going into it: Blanche begins to resent Judith for helping her but not in the exact way she would like (but, of course, she can’t be specific to how Judith could make it better for her since she is doing everything someone could reasonably be expected to do in that situation). In a season of frustrations, this one is especially upsetting when considering how their relationship might have progressed across the episodes because of Judith’s endearing deed to help her boss. Instead, so much time is spent with Blanche’s exhausting anger towards Judith that it feels like wasted time. Admittedly, the most conflict of the season exists within this relationship, so perhaps its existence is a necessary evil. It mostly feels evil.
There are series that suffer in their second season when they become aimless and, unfortunately, Julia falls into that category. Despite with Sarah Lancashire’s delightful lead performance, the season can’t be saved due to a lack of actual plot and characters that don’t seem to have a role outside of Julia’s life. Unfortunately for everyone else on the series, their performances can’t make up for unconvincing writing. Even with the right ingredients, the sophomore season of Julia falls like a delicate soufflé.
Julia returns for its second season on HBO and streaming on MAX with three episodes on November 16 with one episode weekly through December 21.
Photo: Seacia Pavao/Max