I reviewed Channel 4's new comedy Friday Night Dinner when it debuted, and quite liked it. It was nothing special, but it was likable, although I had concerns about the inflexibility of the concept (two young adult brothers have weekly dinner with their Jewish parents), and the lack of belly laughs. As a fan of the sublime '70s docuspoof Look Around You (co-created by FND's writer Robert Popper), I was prepared to stick around to see it grow. Sitcoms often take a few weeks to settle down and find their voice, particularly a character-based comedy like FND.
The final episode aired last Friday, what are more overall thoughts? Well, I grew to like it slightly more, as familiarity with the characters and their behaviour increased over time, but wouldn't say I loved it. Simon Bird is repeating his Inbetweeners character with such fidelity it makes Ricky Gervais look like Daniel Day Lewis, while grinning Tom Rosenthal has proven to be something of an uninteresting flop. The writing for the two "boys" doesn't ring true, either. The running joke of them continually trying to spike each other's water with salt is too childish, and wasn't funny the first time it happened -- let alone the third, fourth or fifth. Likewise, running gags about sending each other inappropriate text messages as "Mum" began to feel like crutches. It's true that families are full of in-jokes and horseplay, but there's a reason they're not funny from the perspective of an outsider.
I like Tom Ritter and Tamsin Greig as parents Jackie and "Dad" more, probably because it's inherently funnier having nutty parents in a family comedy. Mark Heap's loner neighbour Jim, who constantly finds excuses to call round and flirt with Jackie, was also good value, and it helped that the entire joke with him was the repetition of his thwarted attempts to get invited in for a meal. Heap's in his comfort zone, having played variations on Jim many times before, but he's amazingly good at playing twitchy oddballs.
Considering the insanity and razor-sharp accuracy of Look Around You, I'm surprised Robert Popper didn't play to those strengths for his first solo project, though. FND crawled along most weeks; each episode resembling a fresh attempt at crafting the perfect pilot. There's no obvious progression of anything, or anyone, or a reason to keep returning every week. It's just half-an-hour of faintly likable, but often plodding family interaction. The moment something seismic happened (Jonny's caught ravishing a girl Jackie invited to dinner to set her up with his brother), signals the end of the six-part series. It would have been nice to have a few such cliffhanger endings previously, to shake the mood up week to week.
Overall, FND has been recommissioned, so hopefully that vote of confidence from Channel 4 will give Popper the courage to push the boundaries next year, not let the show get too bogged down in repetition, and find ways to prevent it getting too stale. I do wonder why it was decided to constrain the show with this exacting premise, though -- as the prospect of a sitcom that's My Family-with-laughs is more appealing to me. Perhaps it was an easier sell keeping FND's scope so humble, because of the budget. If so, maybe now it's a success the constraints will be lifted slightly. Or as much as they can be with a show called Friday Night Dinner.