Friday Night Dinner

Friday Night Dinner debuts tonight on BBC America at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.

As its title would indicate, BBC America’s Friday Night Dinner is a situation comedy with an emphasis on the situation (albeit without deemphasizing the comedy). It is not a show about the Goodman Family so much as it is a show about their observance of the Jewish tradition of…well, it’s right in the title, really.

Almost all television shows utilize stock situations in order to tell their stories, and occasions like this one are not uncommon: The one that I’m most familiar with, Emily and Richard’s Friday night dinners on Gilmore Girls, offered a point on which each episode could begin or shift or climax depending on where it was placed. In the case of Friday Night Dinner, written and created by Robert Popper, this event is all we ever see: While the two twenty-something sons (Jonny and Adam, played by Tom Rosenthal and Simon Bird) have their own lives, and while we presume that their parents (Jackie and Martin, played by Tamsin Greig and Paul Ritter) do things during the week, all we ever see is the time they spend together on Friday evenings.

Again, almost all shows are ostensibly like this, showing us a selective portion of the characters’ lives in order to construct the most efffective story. However, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a show that is so structured, using the same situation as a formula for each episode. While certain settings might be used in nearly every episode of a sitcom (like Central Perk on Friends), there’s usually a diversity of settings depending on the story being told, or at least a diversity of times at which everyone is gathered in the same location (like on Cheers, for example). Here, the story being told is a story about what happens at Goodman Friday night dinners, and thus it remains wholly focused on the one time a week when everyone in the family is together in one place. In a sense, the basic structure of the show is a bottle episode, to the point where members of the family actually leaving the house in later episodes of the series feels more momentous than it has any right to.

My experience with the first series (which aired in the UK back in February) was actually kind of backwards from what I would normally expect given how formulaic the show is. When I first watched the series premiere, “The Sofabed,” I wasn’t particularly impressed.* The episode is the point of introduction, but it introduces two things that seem to work against one another. On the one hand, it does a nice job of establishing the relationship between the family members, with Adam and Jonny playing practical jokes on one another and Martin and Jackie feuding over some old junk that Martin refuses to throw away. While it helps that the cast is sharp, the writing also sells that this isn’t some momentous occasion: This is a regular Friday night dinner for the family, and there’s a laidback feel to their dynamic that I found quite refreshing.

* Note that BBC America chose to air the second episode, "The Jingle," as the first, so "The Sofabed" will actually air next week. Sorry for the confusion.

However, the premiere also reveals the show’s penchant for Chekhovian storytelling. If something is introduced early in an episode of Friday Night Dinner, it will become important at a later point in the episode: For example, if a phone is stuck on speaker, you know that someone is going to have a private conversation that becomes a public one. I call it Chekhovian because every episode really does have about a half-dozen equivalents of Chehkovian guns, items set up to play a role in the climax of the episode. Even without realizing that every episode would follow this formula (which they do), I saw every move coming in “The Sofabed,” the show calling its shots to the point of pretension. The result isn’t terrible, really quite funny at points, but it ends up feeling a bit flat: Even if I didn’t predict exactly how the glass of water with salt in it would be used, the actual result was less satisfying because it called such attention to itself, and took away from the rest of the episode.

Something weird happened over the course of the series, though, that turned things around. It actually kind of surprised me: Based on my often-annoying penchant for “character development” and “narrative complexity,” it seems strange that I’m about to praise a show for abandoning both of them. As noted, the formula for each episode never changes, and if anything the characters become subsumed by the formula. Each character becomes a cog in the machine, their particular personality resulting in particular actions that enable particular jokes that the show is fond of telling. They keep having the same basic conversations, often with the same jokes, and the scenarios that are introduced throughout the series are different on the surface but generally follow the same patterns as those that came before.

However, I found myself growing more fond of the series as this happened. I think it’s because there’s a note of truth to the sameness of the series, a logical reason why the show would fall into this formula. This is the only time in the week when this family is together, and thus the only time the kids have to put up with the parents and the parents get a chance to spend time with their kids. When Martin first broaches the question of girls — sorry, ‘females’ — with Adam, it feels like a familiar bit of parental nosiness, falling into familiar tropes. However, when it recurs in the following episodes, you realize that the joke isn’t “Ha ha, Martin makes Adam uncomfortable when he talks about females,” it’s that it happens every single week, nearly without fail. One could surmise that from the premiere, perhaps, but it becomes more effective as it’s put on display, the show’s predictable rhythms transforming into familiar rhythms.

The show finds success by embracing that familiarity on two different levels. The first is the way the show manages to transform simple jokes into recurring pleasures. Their stalker-ish neighbor Jim, for example, seems a bit too broad in the premiere, but the show takes great pride in finding ways to make his inevitable presence at the Goodman house on Friday evenings a charming roadblock to the night’s events. I’m not entirely sold on the character’s broadness, perhaps, but after a while there was a certain thrill to hearing the doorbell ring and knowing (or at least expecting) that it would be Jim and his Belgian Shepherd at the door. Once you accept that it’s just going to happen, you sort of go along with the ride, which is exactly how one begins to enjoy a series like this one.

The second is that this really does feel familiar for me as a viewer: Although I am not Jewish, I am one of two twenty-something sons, and there were moments here that reminded me of family dinners as seen through a sitcom lens. While the eventual calamity that results at the end of every episode may not be common, and my brother and I are those annoying siblings that ‘never fought,’ the launching pad for most of those circumstances is based in basic family behaviors that I can relate to. The characters have certain broad comic traits, like Martin’s hearing problems and his habit of walking around without a shirt on, but the episodes never depend on those traits being exaggerated for comic effect. They are simply parts in the whole, circumstances that better allow for certain storylines to unfold.

Benefitting from the short British series structure, Friday Night Dinner never really grows stale. Just when you think that you’re getting tired of seeing the same basic structure unfold, the show introduces members of the extended family, or sends the family out to dinner, or builds the dinner around a particular event (like a birthday). The finale, meanwhile, even goes so far as to pay off a series of recurring references, a nice series send-off that gives the show a fair bit of momentum going into a planned second series to air next year. The finale is no less predictable than the episodes that came before, its conclusion apparent as soon as the episode begins, but the episode’s predictability is based on the show’s characters and our knowledge of their behavior.

So long as you find those characters engaging, which isn’t particularly difficult in my eyes, Friday Night Dinner develops into a charming and energetic comedy that makes good use of a simple premise. There's no real plot development - for example, we never learn whether we're seeing subsequent dinners or dinners spread out over a longer period - but it never aims to be that kind of show. It just aims to deliver a weekly comic situation that spirals out of control, a simple notion that offers great rewards when executed this successfully.

Stray Observations

  • For the record, I'd probably give tonight's premiere a 'B' if I was grading it on its own, but later installments were a marked improvement for me. These 'full series' reviews are always a bit awkward grading wise, but I'd say 'A-' sums up my overall impression of the show.
  • After spending the last six weeks covering The Inbetweeners, it was kind of weird to transition into six episodes of Simon Bird playing the exact same character just aged up a half-decade or so (which isn’t wholly surprising given that Popper was a story editor on The Inbetweeners in its first series). It’s clear that Bird really doesn’t have another gear, but I think Adam is a strong character for his style of humor, and Adam is far more likeable than Will.
  • It's interesting how little information we learn about the characters: I still don't know what Martin and Jackie do for a living (if anything - they could be retired), and we don't learn Jonny's profession (unless my memory is slipping) until the finale. One of my favorite things about the show is how it doesn't really bother with exposition, which definitely pays off by the end of the series when we've accumulated information incidentally instead of having it all dropped on us at once.
  • Tamsin Greig is a rare case of a transatlantic television ‘star,’ now balancing both Friday Night Dinner and Showtime’s Episodes. Because of the condensed shooting schedules of both British series and cable series, she’s able to work on both sides of the Atlantic in continuing series — can anyone think of an example of someone else who has done the same? No one’s coming to mind for me.
  • Very curious to see where the show heads in its second series, in particular whether any of the developments in the finale (which is the most clear bit of ‘plot development’ that could have lingering effects) actually continue on.
  • As always, it’s very possible that some of you have already seen the whole series if you’re in the UK, so I expect there will be some discussion of the whole series below. Without any real ‘plot,’ I don’t know if anything can truly be spoiled, but I’d still suggest avoiding specific details since I’m a spoilerphobe by nature.