If you’re Jewish and see the phrase “Friday Night Dinner,” you’re likely to equate it with Shabbat. But if you’re British, you probably think of the BBC sitcom that’s light on the Judaica and heavy on the laughs.
I recently recommended “Friday Night Dinner” to a friend who has three tween-to-teenage sons, and almost all of them liked it immediately. The oldest one initially resisted (“He doesn’t like much,” his mother wrote me), but was on board after a few episodes.
Beyond being funny any day of any year, because it’s about a family in close quarters, it’s the perfect show to watch while sheltering in place.
The half-hour comedy began in 2011 on Channel 4 in the U.K. and the sixth season is due to wrap up in a few weeks. Seasons 1 through 4, are available to U.S. viewers on Hulu, and the six-episode season 1 is available for purchase on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
Here’s what you need to know about the show:
The main characters, a Jewish family of four, the Goodmans, gather at mom and dad’s house every Friday night for Shabbat dinner, though the two young-adult sons no longer live there.
The mother, Jackie (Tamsin Grieg), is the long-suffering glue that holds her family of squabbling men together. She deals with her husband’s various idiosyncratic hobbies — for example, painting an awful picture of her that another guest mistakes for Margaret Thatcher, walking around without a shirt on, eating ketchup in a quantity exceeding its condimental use, etc. — and loves having her squabbling boys home.
Martin (Paul Ritter), the shirtless dad, sees himself as a handy type, the kind who might decide to dry fish in the cupboard under the stairs, or defy health orders to cut down on dairy by hiding fancy cheeses in the toilet. He has a favorite curse (“shit on it!”) and always greets his children with “Hello, bambinos.” Every week, he expresses his concern about his sons’ single status, quizzing them with the two cringe-provoking words, “Any females?”
Eldest son Adam (Simon Bird), a.k.a. “Pus Face,” and his brother, Jonny (Tom Rosenthal), a.k.a. “Piss Face,” are constantly at one another. It’s unclear who started whose nickname, but since Jonny is often the gleeful tormentor of his older brother — always seeking to embarrass him, pouring salt into his drinking water, etc. — my money is on him. The pair engage in frisky sibling ribbing which always escalates to full-on wrestling and other kinds of comedic physical interactions.
Jim (Mark Heap) is the quirky neighbor who always drops by, uninvited and always awkward, with his dog, Wilson, of whom he seems terrified. Instead of instructing Wilson to “stay,” he says “remain,” and Wilson never does, instead running around the Goodmans’ house or fleeing into the night.
The Goodmans aren’t ever happy to see Jim, but they always answer the door when he comes by and are passably civil. Jim likes the Goodmans, but he really likes Jackie. He doesn’t know anything about Jews. In one episode, he offers to say “shaloms” as an act of repentance, and in another, he asks if they’re going to the mosque. He’s willing to believe anything is a Jewish ritual.
The gatherings are largely about the food (and the comedy). From Jackie’s traditional Friday night crumble — which may be the sole reason the boys return for this weekly family torture — to a “lovely bit of squirrel,” which is how Martin compliments his wife’s cooking, which is never actually squirrel. That’s called a recurring bit. Or as Martin might prefer, “a recurring bit of squirrel.”
The Jewish content is minimal, but silently present.
There’s always wine and challah on the table, but this family is more about the weekly family reunion than the “welcoming the Sabbath queen at sunset” of it all.
Still, Jewish identity does play a role, especially around Christmas time, or when confronting a casual anti-Semite.
Probably the most Jewish episodes I’ve seen were Season 2’s “The Mouse,” in which Jim finally manages to extract an unwilling invitation for dinner and Season 3’s “The Big Day,” which features Jackie’s mother’s wedding to her boyfriend, Mr. Morris, who doesn’t not look like Hitler.
Jim at Shabbat dinner is odd and hilarious, with repeated “shaloms” and his “Jewish hat” that he made from the shirt he’s actually wearing — a shot of his back reveals the shirt is missing a yarmulke-sized circle.
The wedding service is in a synagogue, with a bearded rabbi, under a Hebrew-embroidered chuppah and with an extended singing of “Baruch haba” (a song of welcome for the bride and groom) and the recitation of “harei at mekudeshet,” the phrase uttered by the groom to sanctify his bride as his own.
During this time when so many of us are required to stay home, “Friday Night Dinner” provides us a chance to to experience the foibles and follies of another family (not our own).
Hulu has 24 episodes to tide us over until they smile upon us with the missing season 5, and then the new season 6 — or until we go stir-crazy with cabin fever and start re-enacting episodes over our own Friday night dinners. If we find ourselves in that space, let’s take a note from the Goodmans and not invite our neighbors.