John C Adams Reviews 'Friday Night Dinner'
(Channel Four, 2011, writer Robert Popper)
If you haven't seen this British sitcom about a secular Jewish family living in suburban north London, you've been missing out. I'm particularly sharing this review now in honour of one of the four main stars, actor Paul Ritter, who died earlier this month.
The series centres around the Jewish institution of Shabbat dinner, and features Jackie and Martin Goodman (Ritter) and their two adult sons Adam and Jonny. Every Friday evening, the lads descend on their parents' house out of a mixture of family duty and childish desire to eclipse each other in order to obtain all the parental attention for themself. There is pretty much nothing that Adam or Jonny won't do to throw the other one under the bus, with Jonny (the younger) usually the worst offender in recognition of the fact that Adam gets more attention as the eldest son. They are bound to fail since almost all parental attention ends up being diverted towards the child-adult neighbour Jim, who arrives on their doorstep on the slenderest of pretences in every episode.
Week after week sees another episode set in their home, with an abundance of scenarios that sees their dinner continuously interrupted. The only thing that doesn't change, other than the presence of the five central characters, is the meal itself. The Goodmans appear to eat an identical meal of roast chicken, roast potatoes, carrots, green beans and broccoli every week. Martin refers to the meat as a 'lovely bit of squirrel'. There is then the appearance of a crumble, since they also eat the same pudding every week, which everyone calls a 'crimble crumble'. Around this cornerstone of routine and family tradition, chaos unfolds.
The family characters are carefully calibrated. Martin is an appalling husband, Jackie is a long-suffering but far from dominated wife. The boys are emotionally and physically antagonistic to each other with a level of immaturity that is shocking until you remember that as a musician and estate agent it is inconceivable that they would behave like that other than in front of their parents. It's the old truth that as soon as you encounter your sibling you both regress almost instantly to childhood again. Martin is far more disturbing, with a tendency to shout 'shit on it' every time anything goes wrong and a penchant for walking around topless most of the time. We put this down to the manopause. The only factor that makes the Goodmans seem appealing is the yardstick presented by their neighbour Jim. He has a toe-curling crush on Jackie, he has a dog that he is afraid of and which constantly gets him into scrapes, and he is physically repellant and bizarre. Besides Jim, Martin looks like a husband to cherish.
I love slapstick comedy and much effort has been put into creating physical scenarios where things go wrong. All the tried and tested comedy ploys are utilised to good effect and the layering of individual challenges into a steady stream of laughs is carefully constructed in every episode. Almost all of the difficulties are self-inflicted, with Jonny the prime mover and Martin often his own worst enemy. Only Jackie feels like a grown up in the room. Most satisfying of all, the individual challenges are brought together seamlessly at the climax of every episode.
A wider array of family and friends provide ready reasons for visitors to intrude upon what ought to be a strictly nuclear family meal. These include Jackie's best friend Auntie Val (Tracy Ann Oberman) and both grandmothers. There is also a steady stream of cameos in one-off appearances, including Francis Barber and Tuppence Middleton.
There have been six seasons so far, at which point a pivot to an expanded family life occurred. It's not yet clear whether a seventh season will be forthcoming, especially since Paul Ritter died this year. The series aired every other year, six episodes per season, so it may be a while before it's confirmed either way and either a new actor cast as Martin or the character written out. The sixth season ended at a point where it could have been continued or presented as wrapped up either way. That was very cleverly balanced, but I love this show so much I do really hope it returns because even after six seasons it feels like it still has much more to give.
Thank you so much for joining me for this 'Weekend Watchers' post in honour of Paul Ritter. He was such a talented actor and will be sorely missed. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below on this show or on any sitcom you've enjoyed and would recommend.
My next post is in a couple of days, a 'Mysteries on Monday' review.