‘Julia’ on HBO Max: The real-life team behind Child TV show

Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who’s devouring “Julia” faster than you can make a French omelette.

As staff writer Meredith Blake points out in her guide to the real-life figures who inspired the series, though, the HBO Max comedy isn’t just about cookbook author and TV pioneer Julia Child (scroll down). Indeed, if you’ve hesitated to dive in because Child is already an institution, not to fear: The series is less biopic than utopian workplace dramedy about Childs’ cooking show “The French Chef” and the birth of public television as we know it, with an ensemble cast (including former “Frasier” co-stars David Hyde Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth) that’s worth the price of admission.

Also this week, Barack Obama’s post-politics career as TV host, the animated series “Pinecone and Pony,” a visit from “Swimming With Sharks” stars Diane Kruger and Kiernan Shipka and our latest reader recommendation. Bon appetit!

Want to be featured in Screen Gab? Please send your TV or streaming movie recommendation to our email address, [email protected], with your name and location. Submissions should be no longer than 200 words and are subject to editing for length and clarity.

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Former President Obama in “Our Great National Parks.”

(Netflix)

The “our” in the title “Our Great National Parks,” the latest issue from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Netflix deal, does not, happily, refer to the United States and its assorted territories, but the whole world over, the point being that the preservation of wildlife is a global concern, or as Tom Lehrer sang of another possible end to the planet, “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” There are episodes focusing on places dear to the president, including Kenya, where his father’s people live, and “the place where ultimately all of us come from,” and Indonesia, where he lived with his mother as a child, along with Chilean Patagonia and Monterey Bay. The series encompasses plants and animals, furry, finny, scaly, insect-y, many endangered, some rarely seen, and all credited with their particular intelligence.

Regular watchers of nature documentaries will recognize the narratives: the bond of mother and child, dudes fighting over women, the hungry and the hunted. (It goes light on bloodshed — cooperation is as much a theme as predation — but there are a few disturbing sequences you’ll spot coming, should you choose to hide your eyes or fast-forward through them.) The photography is incredible, in the literal sense of the word, sometimes verging on the impossible, but also artfully composed; beauty abounds. That these places are last stands against human encroachment is very much the point, but that there are other humans working to give nature the chance to balance itself offers some hope. Former President Obama makes a fine narrator, and if you have ever wanted to see what the bottom of his feet looked like, look here. —Robert Lloyd

I have an affinity for warrior princesses and human kindness and “Pinecone and Pony” (Apple TV+) delivers both in adorable packaging. Based on the picture book “The Princess and the Pony” by Kate Beaton — a personal favorite that I also recommend — the series follows Princess Pinecone, who dreams of becoming a tough, independent warrior, and her cuddly, supportive steed Pony. The medieval fantasy world of the show is a playful mix of classical sword and sorcery peppered with modern details like juice boxes and pizza. As a show meant for younger viewers, each episode has clear morals that show how being considerate of others or asking for help when you need it is not a “weakness” warriors need to avoid. But these lessons — and the comedy of well-timed farts — are things viewers of all ages can enjoy. —Tracy Brown

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Two women, one younger, in black, and the other older, in white, looking grim.

Kiernan Shipka, left, and Diane Kruger in “Swimming With Sharks.”

(Roku Channel)

Quibi may have lasted about as long as its “bite-sized” episodes, but the short-form streamer continues its afterlife on the Roku Channel with “Swimming With Sharks,a regular-sized, six-part remake of the 1994 film, this time with Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”) as a Hollywood studio intern and Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”) as her powerful boss. The pair swung by Screen Gab to talk about what they’re watching right now, the erotic thriller tradition that informs the series and what it gets right about showbiz. —Matt Brennan

What have you watched recently that you are recommending to everyone you know?

Kiernan Shipka: “The Worst Person in the World.” (VOD)

Diane Kruger: I love “Yellowstone” (Peacock) and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (Paramount+)!

What’s your go-to “comfort watch,” the movie or TV show you go back to again and again?

Kruger: “Star Wars” (Disney+) and “American Gigolo” (HBO Max).

Shipka: “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail” (both on Roku Channel, HBO Max) are my comfort watches. I will never get tired of either.

“Swimming With Sharks” draws on a long tradition of erotic thrillers, especially in film. What’s your favorite example of the genre and why?

Shipka: “Black Swan” (Hulu). That movie, to me, is a stunning example of true filmmaking and genius performances. It’s not only thrilling to watch but I always find myself going back and drawing on it for inspiration with regard to my own work.

Kruger: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (VOD). It’s sexy yet the story behind it is fascinating to watch play out. You can’t take your eyes off of Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson.

Being fiction, the series depicts a particularly cutthroat Hollywood. What would you say it gets right about the industry’s real-life dynamics?

Shipka: Though “Sharks” is meant to be a fun, pulpy piece of entertainment, the idea that the industry is full of rejection and disappointment and requires a thick skin is extremely true.

Kruger: The idea of assistants having no life outside of work if they want to make it.

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A man holds a cue card that reads "Welcome to the French Chef."

David Hyde Pierce as Paul Child in “Julia.”

(HBO Max)

In the breezy HBO Max comedy “Julia,” the great Sarah Lancashire stars as renowned chef Julia Child, who introduced a generation of Americans raised on canned vegetables and casseroles to the joys of French cuisine. Picking up more or less where the biopic “Julie & Julia” left off, “Julia” offers a fascinating look at real-life figures who helped create Child’s groundbreaking show, “The French Chef,” in the early 1960s — and in the process invented a new kind of television. Here’s a guide to who’s who in the series:

Paul Child (David Hyde Pierce): A longtime civil servant, Child met Julia while working for the Office of Strategic Services in Sri Lanka during World War II, and has been credited with introducing his wife to fine cuisine. While he was stationed in postwar Paris, Julia enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, and culinary history was made. He retired from government service in 1961, dabbled in poetry, painting and photography, and played the role of supportive spouse to his famous wife. He even designed her kitchen, now memorialized at the Smithsonian. “He’s responsible for everything I did,” Julia told The Times in 1989. “We worked together very closely.”

Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford): An ambitious young Black producer and big believer in Child’s appeal to TV viewers, Alice is a fictional character, though one seemingly inspired by several female producers who were instrumental in bringing “The French Chef” to air, including Ruth Lockwood, who helped pick out the show’s theme music, and Miffy Goodhart, who booked Child in her omelette-making debut on “People are Reading” and pushed a skeptical Russ Morash to get her on the network again, according to Bob Spitz’s biography “Dearie.” As series creator Daniel Goldfarb and showrunner Chris Keyser told The Washington Post, there were Black producers at WGBH in this time period, so in theory there could have been a woman like Alice on “The French Chef.”

An ambitious young Black producer and big believer in Child’s appeal to audience, Alice is a fictional character, though one seemingly inspired by Ruth Lockwood, an assistant producer at WGBH who played a key role behind the scenes at “The French Chef.” Lockwood was white, but, as series creator Daniel Goldfarb and showrunner Chris Keyser told the Washington Post, there were Black producers at WGBH in this time period.

Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth): Avis and her husband, Bernard DeVoto, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian whose work focused on the American West, were part of a vibrant intellectual scene in Cambridge that included poet Robert Frost. In 1952, Child wrote a fan letter to Bernard in response to a Harper’s Magazine column he’d written about kitchen knives. Avis, who often handled her husband’s correspondence, replied on his behalf. The women, then in their 40s, became pen pals and dear friends, exchanging letters about food, marriage, art and politics. (Their letters were published in a collection, “As Always, Julia,” in 2011.) DeVoto read early versions of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and helped get the book to Knopf. After her husband died in 1955, DeVoto worked as a cookbook scout and editor. She died in 1989.

Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott): With all due respect to Child, Jones might be the most remarkable figure in “Julia.” As an editor, she had a reputation for championing books that others had rejected, including “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which she discovered in a slush pile at the Doubleday office in Paris while her boss was out to lunch. An American who’d fallen in love with French food during her time abroad, she saw the potential in the unwieldy manuscript that would go on to become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Her career was wide-ranging: She worked with famed novelists like John Updike and Anne Tyler and also edited translations of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre before specializing in cookbooks. Through collaborations with culinary writers including Jacques Pépin, Marcella Hazan and Lidia Bastianich, she helped elevate American cuisine. Jones published a memoir, “The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food,” in 2007, and died in 2017 at the age of 93.

Russ Morash (Fran Kranz): As portrayed in “Julia,” Morash trained to work in the theater but landed a job at the Boston public TV station WGBH, where he went on to have a long and influential career in TV. In addition to his role as a producer-director on “The French Chef,” he created the public TV staple “This Old House,” helping spawn the now-flourishing home-improvement genre. Working with Child was “wonderful,” he told The Times in 2019. “I always called Julia a ‘today’ person. She didn’t much care about what happened yesterday. She was only interested in moving it forward, which is a great tactic to get through a complex life.” He still lives in Massachusetts. —Meredith Blake

Mailbag

Recommendations from Screen Gab readers

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A scene from “Vikings: Valhalla.”

(Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

“Vikings” and “Vikings: Valhalla” (Netflix) focus on Viking culture and the invasion of England and Europe, while “The Last Kingdom” (Netflix) tells the story of the response of the English kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia to the Viking (Danish) invasion and the beginning of the emergence of a unified England. Stories provide dramatic religious, romantic and violent details of this history. The production values, writing and acting are very good.

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What’s next

The TV shows and streaming movies to keep an eye on in the coming week

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Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in “The First Lady.”

(Jackson Lee Davis/Showtime)

Friday, April 15

“Roar” (Apple TV+): This anthology series from “GLOW’s” Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch features an all-star case — including “GLOW’s” own Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin — is essentially a collection of short stories focused on women. (In fact, it’s adapted from one.)

Sunday, April 17

“The First Lady” (Showtime): It might surprise you to learn that “The First Lady” is not an episodic anthology series. Rather, it weaves together the stories of three women in the White House — Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) — into one multi-stranded narrative, from writer Aaron Cooley and director Susanne Bier.

Monday, April 18

“Better Call Saul” (AMC): The saga of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, who suffered a heart attack during filming) begins its final chapter with a two-part season premiere. As with predecessor “Breaking Bad,” the final season will be divided into two halves, with the second slated for July.

Wednesday, April 20

“The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans” (Paramount+): If the names Danny Roberts or Julie Stoffer mean something to you, the latest installment in the reunion series is for you.

“Russian Doll” (Netflix): The acclaimed sensation returns three years later for a (seemingly impossible) second season, with co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne assuming the role of showrunner.

Thursday, April 21

“The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max): Another (slightly less) acclaimed (minor) sensation returns 14 months later for a (pretty much inevitable) second season, with Kaley Cuoco once again in the lead.