ICYMI: Paul McDaniel on Friday Night Dinner
Regular Chunks-charmer Paul McDaniel takes in one of the best sleeper sitcom hits of the last decade
Honestly, I'm the worst person at keeping up with new shows. "Oh, that sounds good," I say to people, "I'll definitely check that out". But I never do. You'd think with lockdown I'd finally have time to sit and watch all those game-changing, unmissable shows I've been recommended. But no, I'll always find an excuse not to. It's quite simple. I'm a very lazy man. Or more specifically, I have "new show fear". If I sit down and commit to watching something, what if it's not very good and I've wasted my time? I'm far happier comfort-watching old episodes of Alan Partridge and Larry Sanders. That's right, I'm lazy and a bit stuck in the past.
Friday Night Dinner is another of those shows I've been told is "actually quite good". All the recent sitcoms I'd heard people rave about were from the US, and the 2010s didn't seem a particularly dazzling decade for UK sitcoms. Friday Night Dinner, though, was one that kept cropping up. Written by Robert Popper and based on his own middle-class, Jewish upbringing, it premiered in 2011 and is now in its sixth series. The premise is beautifully simple: the Goodman family try (and fail) to enjoy their Shabbat dinner each week. And it's great. Really great. I was only meant to watch two episodes for this article but I ended up binging the first two series in two evenings.
What really makes it great is the ‘smallness' and intimacy of proceedings; we rarely leave the confines of the Goodman household and most episodes take place in almost-real time. What's also brilliant is the dynamic of the family and the cast bouncing off each other. Paul Ritter absolutely steals the show as the gormless Martin, the family patriarch. Much humour is derived from his eccentricities like randomly appearing topless ("I'm boiling") or laughing way more than is humanly acceptable at his own jokes ("Lovely bit of squirrel, Jackie!"). His catchphrase when things go wrong (and they do) is "Shit on it!" He's also partially deaf. In fact, the first laugh out loud moment for me occurred in the first episode, when Martin mishears a man helping them move a sofabed who tells them: "Oh my God. My dad's just died". Martin pauses to comfort the man. "How awful. What kind of dog was it?"
Martin's bickering sons, Johnny and Adam, are played by Tom Rosenthal and Simon Bird from The Inbetweeners (not seen it, sorry). Referring to each other as "pissface" and "pusface", their juvenile antics made me think of Peep Show. Their continuous pranks on one another almost always backfire and very often take some innocent bystander with them.
Tamsin Greig plays Jackie, a very mumsy mum, who calls her grown sons "bobbles" and embarrasses them by showing naked baby pictures to their dates (the cringe comedy in Friday Night Dinner is off the map). She also gets very hurt when other family members don't notice her new curtains, or when her own mother describes their colour as "piss yellow". Greig's been rightly nominated for a Bafta for her performance but it's a damn shame the rest of the cast haven't been also.
Rounding off the cast (and nearly stealing the show from Ritter) is Mark Heap at his most Mark Heap-ish as Jim, the bizarre neighbour whose unwanted visits frequently interrupt the family dinner. Jim seems terrified of his own mild-mannered dog Wilson that accompanies him, and seems to have a bit of a crush on Jackie too.
Friday Night Dinner reminded me of Fawlty Towers. It's farcical and claustrophobic with characters running up and down stairs trying to avert disasters and only making them much worse. Various plot strands will come crashing together at the end like Seinfeld (though it's nothing like that show). Often, a joke that's been set up 15 minutes before will pay off just when you've completely forgotten about it.
In conclusion: I loved this! I really should check out more stuff I've heard is good. Just don't recommend anything else to me until I'm done, okay?
Paul McDaniel currently hosts the web series That Doesn't IMPRESSION Paul Much...That IMPRESSION Paul A LOT!!!, available on YouTube.