Does America Really Need to Remake British Sitcoms Anymore?

American TV bosses obviously didn’t learn many lessons from “Episodes,” the Showtime/BBC co-production which brilliantly skewered the habit of adapting British sitcoms, and removing all nuances, subtleties, and idiosyncrasies in the process. In the 13 years since its premiere, there’s been numerous failed pilots (“Spy”), ratings disasters (“Free Agents”), and entire series considered unfit for public consumption (“Us and Them”) which originated across the pond. Now the most singular UK comedy of the 2010s is going transatlantic.

The BAFTA-nominated “Friday Night Dinner” — which served up 37 episodes from 2011-2020 —stemmed from creator Robert Popper’s real-life secular Jewish family and their weekly Shabbat meals, explaining why everything from its suburban London home to its lovable oddballs feels so wonderfully specific. Disappointingly, Amazon Freevee’s “Dinner with the Parents” is as generic as its title.

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The 10-part series on Freevee does attempt to retain some of the original’s quirks. There’s a parent, in this case mollycoddling matriarch Jane (Michaela Watkins), who refers to women like they were an alien race. And grown-up brothers Gregg (Daniel Thrasher) and David (Henry Hall) enjoy taunting each other in a manner even the Impractical Jokers would dismiss as immature. But overall, it subscribes to the belief that bigger is better. Literally, too, in the case of the Langer family’s far more spacious home.

Most key players are amplified to the nth degree, for one thing. The father figure is still socially inept. Instead of a scatterbrained hoarder, though, he’s an overbearing loudmouth prone to impersonating Al Pacino. The maternal grandmother is still dotty, but rather than a sweet old lady, she’s a belligerent chain vaper happy to swindle her daughter out of $300.

Then there’s Jon Glaser’s next-door-neighbor, no longer a nervy, nerdy bachelor terrified by his Alsatian sidekick, but a charmless, womanizing sports-bro. It‘s understandable why the Goodmans accommodated, albeit reluctantly, such a nuisance. It’s unclear why the Langers follow suit.

Dinner With The Parents - Jon Glaser as Donnie Stokes in episode 101 of Dinner With The Parents. Photo: Olly Courtney/CBS ©2023 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
‘Dinner with the Parents’CBS

The show further loses a sense of intimacy by quickly abandoning its simple, insular premise. Whereas “Friday” rarely ventured beyond its central clan’s more humble abode, “Dinner” traps dad Harvey (Dan Bakkedahl) in a moving RV in episode two and sends Nana (Carol Kane) on a calamitous next-door heist in its fourth.

“Friday” had its own unique propulsive rhythm, one which mined comedy gold from the most mundane domestic situations: selling a sofa bed, for instance, or a disagreement over curtains. In contrast, the opening farce in “Dinner” – where David pays a Postmates driver to play his girlfriend – spins so wildly out of control it results in a proposal and announcement of twins.

Such remakes are nothing new, of course. The 1970s’ three biggest US sitcoms (“Sanford and Son,” “Three’s Company,” “All In the Family”) all stemmed from British hits. As TV entered its multi-channel era, however, this approach seldom reaped rewards, with Stateside versions of “The Young Ones,” “Fawlty Towers” and “Absolutely Fabulous” either flopping or floundering in development hell. Yet networks still persisted through the ‘90s and beyond, greenlighting lackluster remakes of “Coupling,” “The Inbetweeners” and “This Country.”

Interestingly, there are few reverse examples. “In with the Flynns,” BBC’s 2011 answer to “Grounded for Life,” is the only notable misfire this century, with UK audiences generally more receptive to American exports and their distinct cultural references (Brits didn’t know who Jill Goodacre was before “Friends”; now her name’s as recognizable as any homegrown supermodel).

Admittedly, some remakes can justify their existence. The US and UK’s history books are so vastly different, CBS’s “Ghosts” – a rare success story – and its substitution of Georgian noblewomen for Prohibition-era lounge singers ultimately made sense. Then there’s “The Office” which expanded the world of its corporate misfits while retaining the original’s heart and cringe-inducing spirit.

The broadcasting structure has changed so much since, however, the brevity of Ricky Gervais’ two-season wonder no longer seems an issue. Audiences today are used to sitcom seasons which don’t require a full day to binge. And with most contemporary shows available to stream somewhere (Britbox houses “Friday”), accessibility isn’t an excuse, either.

In this case, neither is relatability. Who hasn’t been mortified by a parent’s inherently strange behavior? Who hasn’t had a nosy neighbor oblivious to social cues? If “Dead Pixels,” “Everyone Else Burns,” and “We Are Lady Parts,” all recent sitcoms reflecting offbeat British ways of life, can be screened in original form, does such a familiar concept really need a translation? Furthermore, the boundaries between American and British comedy are increasingly blurring, with “Toast of London” “Ted Lasso,” and “Catastrophe” all sharing writers, settings, and cast members from both arenas.

Freevee may have been wiser to simply acquire and re-promote “Friday,” which did air at an unfashionably late 11:30pm on BBC America in 2011, an age when anything that strayed beyond America’s sitcom tropes was still viewed with suspicion. No longer the case – see the multiple Emmy wins for “Fleabag” – it may simply have been ahead of its time.

“Dinner” isn’t an affront to comedy by any means. Still, presumably like the three previous attempted remakes (including NBC’s 2012 Allison Janney-starring pilot), it pales in comparison to its source material in every aspect. To paraphrase Bong Joon-ho, “once you overcome the barrier of anything Anglocentric, you will be introduced to so many more amazing sitcoms.”

“Dinner with the Parents” premieres Thursday, April 18 on Freevee.

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