Spoilers ahead! Do not watch until you have seen episode 8 of “Julia.”
“Julia” might put a strong focus on the food, but it’s a show that also has a lot more on its mind. The Max comedy series takes on a wide range of 1960s-era social issues, including feminism, homosexuality, civil rights and the anti-war movement.
“Julia” wraps up its second season Thursday with an eventful finale that includes filming an ambitious crustacean segment — in the “Lobster a l’Americaine” episode. After cooking and hitting farmer’s markets in the south of France with her friend and co-author Simone Beck (Isabella Rossellini), the Childs — played by Sarah Lancashire and David Hyde Pierce — spend time in Paris, then return to Boston where they must confront — and foil — an FBI investigation into WGBH’s “subversive” activities, with help from station employees like producer Alice (Brittany Bradford).
Variety spoke with showrunner Chris Keyser and creator Daniel Goldfarb about how they wove the important issues of the time into Julia Child’s story and whether a Season 3 could be in the works.
What was it like shooting in France? Production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein and culinary consultant Christine Tobin said it was broiling hot when you were there.
Goldfarb: It was hot. And it was also the COVID capital of the world. But it was incredible. That second episode is all about everyone gathering and getting together and celebrating, and that’s what we were doing. That is the show, it’s about the sensuality and beauty and love for life. So it was a wonderful experience.
You had wanted to shoot in France for the first season, but you weren’t able to?
Goldfarb: When we originally pitched out the first season to HBO Max, we wanted to do two episodes in the south of France. And that was partly how we lured Isabella Rossellini to play Simca, because Julia’s relationship with Simca is such an important relationship in the biography. And then because of COVID, we just couldn’t do it. Then when we got the second season, and Chris called Sarah and told her that we were doing two episodes in France, she was like, “Maybe we can do three episodes.”
In the French episodes, especially, the approach to the gay relationships was interesting. What was the thinking behind the depiction of James Beard and his lover?
Keyser: Julia fully embraced James Beard, he was one of her close friends. At the same time, she and he were often casually homophobic, which both reflects the time in which they were living and also suggests that they could at their best be ahead of their time. So the stuff that you see with Paul and with James and with James’ short-term lover in France also reflects all of that — the idea that they were both comfortable with, in a sense, and uncomfortable with the idea that James was different. We’ve always said that the show should embrace the idea that life is full of complications and contradictions, and that they should be sometimes wonderful and sometimes painful, but that they had to be dealt with lightly in a sense, because what we’re doing is a comedy.
It was fascinating learning about Zephyr Wright in the White House “Shrimp and Grits” episode. What went into making that episode?
Keyser: We had decided we knew from the very beginning that there were certain moments in Julia’s life that we wanted to dramatize. And one of them was when she’d gone and done the first special inside the White House, and told America about what it was like to create a state dinner.
The whole season is about the way the world changes, and you either change or you push back against it. Julia famously went to the White House and was disappointed in the way she was treated. And she met a number of remarkable women, all of whom made the world work, but got very little credit for what they did. And that included Bess Abell, the White House Social Secretary and Zephyr Wright, who was the personal chef to Lyndon Johnson and his family. The world mostly doesn’t know about her, but she played a very meaningful role in the changes that came about in the ’60s, particularly Johnson’s relationship to the civil rights movement, the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
Zephyr explains to Alice that especially for a Black woman of her era, sometimes it’s better to fight the system quietly than to put yourself in danger on the frontlines.
We wanted to play Zephyr in relation to Alice, who was also figuring out what path she was going to take, the opportunities that were open to her, the doors that were closed. So Zephyr is a meaningful role model and also a kind of a teacher and friend to Alice in this show, and meaningful to Julia as well as an example of the way in which women need to be championed. And the question for Julia about her relationship with women and working women in particular is at the very heart of the season.
I loved seeing Hannah Einbinder as the extremely uptight White House social secretary Bess Abell.
Keyser: She was great. Hannah really wanted to do the show. So we wrote that part for her.
Goldfarb: Once she had reached out to us about being on the show, we decided to just conceive a character that had absolutely no sense of humor. And of course, she’s hilarious.
In the second season, we see the FBI investigating Julia and Paul and WGBH, and it wraps up eventfully in the last episode. Was that based on actual events, like Julia’s past in the OSS?
Keyser: We wanted to deal with the Childs’ time in the OSS, but we didn’t want to do flashbacks. The mythology of them being spies was really fun to us and we wanted to lean into that. Then when we were doing our research, there was an article that came out that the FBI had a dossier on Aretha Franklin, that the FBI had a dossier on The Monkees, all of these sort of left-leaning artists and institutions the FBI was keeping track of.
Did that tie into the rumors about Paul’s sexuality?
Even that interaction that Paul has with Sam (James Beard’s lover) is setting up what’s going to come up in episode 4, when Frank gets into the car with Julia and says, “You wouldn’t want it to come out what we know about Paul.” And then at the end of Episode 7, the White House episode, Julia finally talks to Paul about what she’s been carrying. And Paul steps up and says, “I stand by my life and I stand by our marriage.” Then we get the little guys beating the big guys finale. So we tried to incorporate all those themes and ideas in a way that is was sort of life-affirming, and delightful in the finale.
At first, “Julia” seems like it’s going to be mostly about the production of one of the first TV cooking shows. Did always see the series branching out to incorporate social movements?
Goldfarb: Julia was a great way to talk about all these societal changes taking place in the ’60s. We could use her and the evolution of a modern marriage as a way to talk about changes for women, changes for people of color, the emerging youth culture, celebrity, public television, educational television, aging, sexism, second acts. It’s what could have happened.
How political did you want to make this series that was essentially about a cooking show?
Keyser: There have been other shows that have dealt with ’60s in particular, and use the politics and real life events of that era to be part of their drama. “Mad Men” is a very good example of it. We made a real decision not to talk about the events in a political way. The assassination of President Kennedy is not mentioned. Yes, Avis and Stanley become involved in the anti-war movement. But mostly what we’re saying is, you can’t have been a woman or a woman of color in the 1960s, and not experience the impact of these social movements, you couldn’t have worked in a place like GBH and not have been a part of the conversation about what it meant for women to expand their horizons.
Goldfarb: I mean, when Julia went on the air, GBH was almost entirely men. And by the time “The French Chef” went off the air in the mid ’70s, it was 75% women.
Have you given any thought to what a third season could look like?
Goldfarb: We are daydreaming about a third season, and actually looking a little later in the ’60s, where it feels like there’s so many incredible things that happened in the biography. As “The French Chef” went through some major shifts and the cookbook came out, Julie’s relationship with Simca could change. At the party in the end of the finale, when Julia declares that she wants to be on the right side and she wants to make some noise — that’s what I hope we get to do. I hope we get to make some noise.
What about Alice? What could be in store for her?
Keyser: I think her relationship with Isaac is obviously going to grow and develop. It’s an example of a relationship that’s now based on the idea that man is going to live with a woman who needs to work. We’ll see how that works out.
It shocked Alice’s mother to hear that she wouldn’t be moving to her fiancé’s city, in fact Isaac would be moving to her city.
Keyser: She’s gonna have to deal with her mom, and maybe the rest of her family. Alice is on an upward career trajectory. We have really barely gotten to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The changes in America that happened through the late ’60s and the ’70s really pick up speed. And so the way in which she intersects with that, both in the world and how she reflects that in the kinds of shows she wants to make at GBH are going to be part of this.
Judith also goes through a lot this season, ending with Blanche finally acknowledging all the work that she’s put in.
Goldfarb: There are a few scenes in Episode 7 and 8, where Fiona and Judith Light are so extraordinary, when Judith Light comes clean about what Judith has been doing for her — it’s one of my favorite moments in the whole season. If you think of the great American cookbooks and how Americans changed how they ate, Judith has arguably even a greater influence than Julia.
Keyser: She also wrote a whole cookbook for dogs.
Simca comes off pretty prickly — how can viewers understand what makes her that way?
Keyser: She’s brittle. Isabella is great at playing that. But I have tremendous sympathy for Simca. She’s the true chef. She’s the pioneer. She partners with another woman who’s the novice, and the novice eventually far outshines the former teacher that she simply has got to deal with what a lot of us have to deal with, which is why is life unfair in that way? Why did all my work get superseded by a woman whose greatest skill is not in making food, but actually smiling at a camera and talking to people on screen? That’s very relatable. I have a lot of sympathy for this remarkable woman who was incredible during the war, who made a career for herself when it was even more difficult for women and in a country in which women did not particularly rise to the top of the cooking profession. And then she gets eclipsed by someone else. And she comes to terms with that.
Goldfarb: Isabella infuses her with so much humor and so much vulnerability. Isabella actually had a friend who knew Simca, so she she got all these emails from this friend and she shared them with us. So she had a very clear idea of what she was doing from the jump.
Did you come to “Julia” thinking, I’ve always wanted to make a show about food?
Goldfarb: The first pilot I ever wrote was about a restaurant critic who reviewed restaurants in disguise. I’m a real foodie. When when this opportunity came up, I immersed myself in watching “The French Chef” and just being in her company is so delightful. In the writers room, we put in things that we’d love to have on set.
Which of your favorite foods snuck into the show?
Goldfarb: I mean, I love steak frites. Chris loves floating islands. So in Episode 7 of Season 1, we had the floating island. I’m a real dessert person, I have the sweet tooth. And (culinary consultant) Christine indulges that — like when in the second episode when they’re doing the dinner party, there were things I don’t even think you can see. I don’t even think we showed dessert but she made like eight different desserts. We had peaches poached in Sauternes and all these incredible things on set that we could just sort of nosh on.
Keyser: Daniel and I and the writers, we definitely focused on the ways in which we could not only continue to explore foods, but expand the scope of food and eating in the season. So people who haven’t seen it yet will have in store for them a bunch of big feasts. The second season of a television show has to be the same — and more. What we’d hope for in the third season is that we would follow not only Julia, but Judith’s palate. Julia enjoys Joyce Chen, one of the great early chefs with Chinese food in this country, and so there are lots of there are lots of interesting ways to go with food as we continue in ways that we haven’t done before.
This interview has been edited and condensed.