Outnumbered and Friday Night Dinner on BBC America: Are British Sitcoms Any Different From Ours?
Cast of Outnumbered
Photo courtesy of BBC America
In a world obsessed with Modern Family, can we open our arms to two more family-centric comedies, especially when they're from across the pond? We'll see later this summer when two new sitcoms, Outnumbered and Friday Night Dinner premiere on BBC America.
It's commonly argued that British humor and doesn't jive well with Americans, hence the need for our own version of The Office. But in the case of these two shows, we're reminded a bit of others we've seen before, from right here on our home soil.
Outnumbered takes us into the household of a family whose surname we never really catch. (You know you've been watching a lot of British TV when you start using words like "surname.") Parents Pete and Sue are literally outnumbered by their three young children: the oldest, Jake, a quiet overachiever who may be a depressive, middle child Ben, who entertains himself by telling outrageous lies, and Karen, the teeny, tomboyish, inquisitive youngest.
In the post-Cosby era, television has embraced the flawed parent with shows such as Roseanne, The Middle and even Family Guy, and Outnumbered fits with that image. Pete and Sue are overwhelmed parents who don't always manage the holy mess of family life with the greatest of ease.
Case in point: Little Karen has nits, but Sue, who's already running late, sends her to school anyway. Pete can't get Ben to drop a drill, which he's holding hostage for no real reason, and get in the car without a bribe. Then, in a display of complete hypocrisy, Sue blames her constantly-fibbing son for firing off angry emails to her boss, only to be caught in the lie by both Pete and Ben. These moments of parental ineptitude weave their way into a partially-improvised script, much of which features hilarious and very real-feeling dialogue with the children ("Can I keep a nit for a pet?" "Who would win if 100 rabbits fought a sheep?" "When you die, do you think you'll get dug up by foxes? Because that's what happened to my hamster." ), creating a show that exposes the chaos of family life in such a way that's over-the-top enough to be funny, but familiar enough to be believable.
Cast of Friday Night Dinner
Photo courtesy of BBC America
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Conversely, Friday Night Dinner focuses on an empty nest, to which two grown sons return every week for shabbos. Technically it's shabbos, anyway, though the Goodman clan doesn't appear to take their Jewish tradition all that seriously.
Friday Night Dinner was created by Robert Popper, who drew much of the story from his real life. Popper says his dad is similar to the show's Martin Goodman, the quirky, often inappropriate father who has a knack for oozing awkwardness into family get-togethers. He's the butt of many jokes for sons Adam and Jonny, and mostly a nuisance for wife and mom Sheila.
On a press phone call with Popper, he said the show was never meant to invoke Jewish humor. Rather it's a show about his family, which happens to be Jewish. In fact, he stated there's really no such thing as Jewish humor in England. We can't speak to the truth of that, but we can say that whether or not it's intentional, some stereotypical Jewish humor does seem to creep in. It's mostly in the form of a hyper-abnormal dad, who produces constant frustration in sons Adam and Jonny.
The show becomes more Larry David-esque with the bizarre situations the Goodmans continually find themselves in: The weird neighbor constantly comes over just to use their bathroom. The family is forced to comfort a man whose father just died, even though he'd only stopped over to buy their sofabed. Everyone erupts in a squabble over whether the curtains are yellow-colored or cream. These Seinfeld moments are undeniable.
But what the show really captures is the way grown children revert to their old ways the moment they go back to their parents' house. Adam and Jonny are relentless with each other, playing constant tricks. They put salt in each other's water, call each other "pissface," and text mean messages such as "I wish you'd never been born. Love mum x," from their mother's phone. Despite being young adults, living on their own, holding down supposed real jobs, the temptation for one to hide in a garbage bag and scare the other is just too great.
So there's plenty overlap when it comes to British and American ideas of humor, though whether that overlap is intentional is up for debate. But good writing is good writing, and for that, these shows get good marks. Or grades. Whatever you want to call them.
Both Outnumbered and Friday Night Dinners will premiere on Saturday, July 30 at 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. respectively on BBC America's "Ministry of Laughs," hosted by Chris Hardwick.
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