(From left) Daniel Thrasher, Michaela Watkins, Carol Kane, Henry Hall and Dan Bakkedahl in “Dinner with the Parents,” an American riff on the British Shabbat sitcom “Friday Night Dinner.” (Photo/Olly Courtney-CBS)
(From left) Daniel Thrasher, Michaela Watkins, Carol Kane, Henry Hall and Dan Bakkedahl in “Dinner with the Parents,” an American riff on the British Shabbat sitcom “Friday Night Dinner.” (Photo/Olly Courtney-CBS)

‘Dinner with the Parents’: A Jewish sitcom from Britain gets remade in American suburbia

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The risk-reward ratio for remaking a successful show for a new type of audience is seductive. Despite the long list of failures, it’s always easy to point at the massive cultural and financial successes of “Friends” (the white version of “Living Single”), “American Idol” (based on the British “Pop Idol,” itself inspired by New Zealand’s “Popstars”) or “The Office” (the American show that recycled the U.K. scripts before finding its own feet in Scranton).

So, especially given its simple, budget-friendly format of one setting and a limited cast of characters, it’s hardly surprising that the beloved, award-winning, “Friday Night Dinner” series from Channel 4 in Britain should continue to provoke American production companies to invest in local versions. Set in the London suburbs, “Friday Night Dinner” shows the weekly adventure when Adam and Jonny Goodman, two adult sons, come home for Shabbat dinner. There are more Jews in the Bay Area than in the whole of Britain, and there is actually a history of Jewish television in America, unlike Britain, so why not transplant Edgware to Squirrel Hill for chuckles and dollars?

Though the setting is never explicitly stated — and though the series was actually filmed in England just near London — there’s a good chance it is indeed based on Jewish Pittsburgh. That’s where Jon Beckerman, the director of “Dinner with the Parents,” this fourth attempt to bring “Friday Night Dinner” to America, grew up. This version is more successful than the first three in that Beckerman has actually brought it to the screen, but perhaps due to the success of “Friday Night Dinner” on Amazon Prime, rather than CBS or NBC where the previous three were developed, this is streaming across U.S. territories via the Amazon ad-based service Freevee.

That less prestigious destination hasn’t stopped Beckerman from assembling a fascinating and mostly appropriate cast to sit shiva, celebrate Seder and enjoy a season of Shabbat meals together. The ubiquitous Carol Kane appears in every episode as a live-in Nana. The two American sons are re-named Greg and David, played by YouTube personality and comedian Daniel Thrasher and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ son Henry Hall respectively. Michaela Watkins plays the mom (Jane) with aplomb.

In the hit British series, the mother and sons are the backbeat of the show. They lay down a track that’s inventive and sets the pitch but is, at its heart, dependable and, for all the family’s foibles, charming. Set on top of this is a bizarre love triangle of the mum, the deeply eccentric dad and the creepy neighbor. What’s crucial in the triangle is that, though the neighbor (Jim Bell, played by Mark Heap) is clearly in love with the mother, that fact comes through slowly, and creepily. And while the mother is in love with the father (Martin Goodman, played by the late Paul Ritter) she is so despite his utterly unusual behavior.

Jim is so horribly slimy that you want to wash your eyeballs after his regular cameos, Martin is so bizarre that it took virtuosic performances year after year from Tamsin Greig as the mother (Jackie) to make his demeanor seem real and connected to family life. For example, Martin is always hot so walks around shirtless, his catchphrase (meaning “tarnation”) is “shit on it” and, one memorable time he (shirtless and pantsless) shakes hands with his son’s girlfriend while washing dog poop off his naked foot in a flushing toilet. The show gets its particular genius from building these dissonant and jangling performances into suburbia.

Robert Popper, who created the British series, based it on his family. I know the family well enough to know that the characters and events are caricatures but, however hyperbolised, they are based on love and grounded in truth. He both celebrates and satirically skewers the banality of his home. Rather than Goodman, though, Beckerman’s version of the family is called Langer, which entered English via Irish slang to mean “contemptible person.” This wouldn’t matter, except that the creators’ lack of love for the family actually shows and it hurts the comedy.

Even with Nana deployed as an extra character in the backing band, the actors have to work hard to be in any way endearing. And to be fair, by the end of the season, the four members of the band do begin to feel like family. Sadly, the neighbor character (Donnie, played by Jon Glaser) is a loser rather than a creep. An offer of his urine for dermatological rejuvenation notwithstanding, his actions lack the air of fascinating menace offered by Jim. Rather than a Hannibal Lecter without the follow-through, Donnie is more of a Ned Flanders who has let himself go. That wouldn’t matter, except instead of bringing an air of suspense with his odd phrases and unpleasant manner, Donnie never brings surprise or laughs, just a lingering presence like a stale odor.

But the real loss is for the father, Harvey (played by Dan Bakkedahl). There’s nowhere for him to go in a character that is written like an extreme dad joke. Martin resembles no one, ever, but exists in a suburban space that pretends he’s a real, normal person. He’s actually horrible, rude and spiteful, if loving. Harvey, even when dressed up as Batman to go and get his ice-cream subscription, is just a buffoon. Because he is not drawn with both love and spite, just an ongoing disdain, his pratfalls don’t land.

“Dinner with the Parents” isn’t terrible, it just lacks the courage of its convictions. It is best when it transcends the mundane and becomes — as its template did in the UK — something other than just another, more Jewish “Married… With Children.” When Jane chops off her finger on her sister’s live cooking TikTok video but hides the fact, what’s funny is not the cliched loss of the finger tip in the freezer bag of ice, but the ways in which she’s willing to endure extreme pain to score a sibling point.

There are so many great scenes from the 37 episodes of “Friday Night Dinner’ that it would make sense for “Dinner With The Parents” to find its hard edge of the absurd with which it twists the lovable suburbs into something stranger. But if this American cousin is not prepared for the satire and strangeness that made “Friday Night Dinner” different, it will have to mine some less tired humor in the usual dad jokes and suburban japes.

Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward.