The new series of Friday Night Dinner is trying too hard.
Like an aging weightlifter, it has donned the leotard, flung powder liberally about the podium and grasped the bar. Everything looks set for another glorious success.
But then there’s a wobble and all of a sudden, without warning, it’s not funny, and averting one’s eyes is the only respectable option.
They may not be lycra clad, but the sickeningly gifted cast of Channel Four’s Friday Night Dinner going through the motions is still a difficult watch. If an important cast member had departed, or the writer had been replaced, say, the downturn could be explained and we could all move forward with our lives, FND’s legacy intact.
Sadly, none of those things are applicable. The full cast are present and correct. Director Simon Bendeleck remains at the helm and Robert Popper wrote the scripts. As you were.
The sad truth is, Friday Night Dinner has run its course. It has fallen foul of the most predictable and yet most obvious predator known to sitcoms. Sit down. Let me patronise you for a second.
You’ll recognise all your favourites from this definition. From Fawlty Towers to Black Books, from Friends to The Big Bang Theory and beyond, the premise of ALL situation comedies is to create a set of characters, furnish them with quirks and a set of circumstances and add a variable from which comedy can be derived.
The perfect sitcom is one in which you know how a character will react because you’ve been taught that’s how they operate, but still find it funny when they do exactly as you predicted.
If your characters are sufficiently rounded, their quirks analogous enough for the viewer to empathise, the variables are irrelevant. It just works and you end up with several glorious seasons of uncompromising hiliarity and merriment.
The moment the variables become the act, you’re on the road to mutual destruction.
Some sitcoms have swerved this fate. In some cases (much to the chagrin of fans) hugely popular sitcoms have ceased production after a few series; in the case of Fawlty Towers, just two.
“We just knew that if we made more, it wouldn’t be as good. When you do something that is generally accepted as very good, how do you top it?”
John Cleese knew. And Fawlty Towers remains one of (if not the) finest situation comedies every produced. And if you watch those episodes back, you’ll note that while the variables were front and centre – hotel inspectors, builders, weddings, vermin and ‘the war’ – the humour was in the characters’ responses to them, not the variables themselves.
I’m not comparing Friday Night Dinner to Fawlty Towers. I might be patronising, but I’m not that patronising. But while in the first couple of series, rolling about on the floor at Jim and Wilson’s arrival, Johnny’s repetitive salting of Adam’s water and Martin’s insistence on wandering the house topless, was a standard consequence of watching the show, the variable has gradually begun to obscure the characters. To the point where I didn’t laugh once during the first episode of the fourth series, The Two Tony’s.
I’ll let you make up your own mind. All four series are currently available on channel4.com with Series 4, Episode 4 scheduled for 10pm on Friday and I’m hoping it’ll offer glimpses of the hilarity it once effortlessly emptied into my living room.
Having read the premises for the remaining episodes, involving Jim’s driving test, a family funeral and an ill-placed ‘For Sale’ sign, I’m not wildly optimistic.
It all feels a bit forced. But at least they’re not reduced to wearing leotards. Yet.