‘Dinner With the Parents’ Leaves a Bad Aftertaste

Seasoned comic pros do what they can with VERY thin gruel in Freevee’s ‘Friday Night Dinner’ remake
‘Dinner With the Parents’ Leaves a Bad Aftertaste

Many successful British comedy formats have, over the years, been remade for American audiences. Many have died swift deaths, like Men Behaving BadlyCoupling and The Inbetweeners. Some have lasted far longer than their original inspirations, like The OfficeShameless and All in the Family (based on Till Death Do Us Part). Some viewers may not know that Three’s Company, which ran on ABC from 1977 to 1984, belongs to the latter category: It was based on Man About The House, which ITV aired from 1973 to 1976, and which spawned two other U.K. spin-offs in addition to its American remake. 

I mention it since, for viewers of a certain age, Three’s Company is shorthand for a TV comedy that’s broad, filled with slapstick and rests its plots on the madcap lengths characters will go to keep a secret or make a lie convincing. Now, 40 years since Three’s Company aired its last episode, Dinner With the Parents is hoping to fill the Three’s Company-shaped hole your TV schedule may or may not have.

Dinner With the Parents, a remake of Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner, is about the Langer family. Middle-aged parents Harvey (Dan Bakkedahl) and Jane (Michaela Watkins) have a standing family meal with their adult sons. David (Henry Hall), the elder, is newly returned to the area after extensive postgraduate study, and is now working as a math professor. Gregg (Daniel Thrasher) still lives at home, generally shows up to dinner in a tracksuit, and is unemployed and possibly unemployable; he is constantly seeking investors in Gregg By Gregg West, the music festival he’s trying to launch. 

Other series regulars include Carol Kane as Jane’s mother, called Nana by everyone else, who lives with the family, and Donnie (Jon Glaser), a Steelers-obsessed neighbor with a crush on Jane. As in the original series, the protagonists are secular Jews, but meeting for dinner on Fridays is pretty much the extent of their traditional observance, though one later episode does take place at a shiva for a barely remembered great-uncle, and another at Passover.

The premise is elegantly simple — a nuclear family, who basically get along, check in with each other every week — which provides a solid foundation for each episode’s plot to spin out into absurdity. For instance: David is trying to get himself invited to dine with his parents’ next-door neighbors, the Spiegels, because he’s had a crush on their daughter Jenny (Izuka Hoyle) since high school, so he lies that his family is in Atlantic City, forcing them to stay inside no matter what in order not to give away the ruse. Jane and Harvey are going to Hawaii for their anniversary, so Gregg and David list the house as a short-term rental, but Harvey booked their departure on the wrong day, so everyone’s going to be sharing the house for the night. Amy (Mircea Monroe), Jane’s “momfluencer” sister, brings her family for a visit, inflaming Jane’s intense jealousy and competitiveness. 

With each episode taking place over just a few hours, the comedic situations progress quickly, but the stakes stay low enough not to make watching too stressful. And while the actors playing the Langer sons are unknown to me — Thrasher came up on YouTube, so he’s none of my business; Hall, as of this writing, doesn’t even have a headshot on IMDb — Bakkedahl, Glaser, Kane and Watkins are all extremely seasoned pros who bring what authenticity they can to even the most contrived scenarios.

The problem is, the contrivance is oppressive. The tone is extremely broad: an adult Batman costume, a box of hairnets, an old lady stuck in a dog door, an appendage chopped off in an Instagram Live cooking demo and a pet snake lost in the house are just a few of the wacky elements that run through the first season. With the exception of Jane and Harvey, the characters rise only rarely above the level of caricature: If you weren’t sure what kind of senior citizen Nana is based solely on her leopard-print tops and all-over silver sequined skirts, her ubiquitous vape pen makes it clear. And while the show seems to be set in Pittsburgh (based on Donnie’s… everything), it shoots in England. Every tertiary character being played by a Briton faking an American accent makes the finished product vaguely uncanny as well as largely unfunny.

Usually, the appeal of a show based in comical misunderstandings and physical buffoonery is that a household full of people ranging widely in age and comprehension can watch together — if not particularly delightedly, at least all finding a median level of moderate satisfaction. But Dinner With The Parents, amazingly, is too dirty and violent to serve even this purpose. Freevee already has a wonderful family comedy that’s funny and smart. Watch Primo again and leave Dinner With the Parents to the compost bin.


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