In ‘The Girlfriend,’ the ‘Friday Night Dinner’ Crew Traumatize an Outsider

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‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined

“He just really likes kids…”

You know you’re in good hands with Robert Popper.

The British genius has worked on some of the funniest programs to come out of the UK, including Look Around You and The Inbetweeners. There’s always a remarkably sharp wit present in his writing as well as a deep vein of absurdism. If Friday Night Dinner  bears a resemblance to any of his former shows, it’s The Inbetweeners due to the dovetailing minutiae that it prides itself in (as well as bringing cast member Simon Bird along with it).

The series looks at a Jewish British family, the Goodmans, that meet together every Friday to have dinner together. It’s a testament to Popper’s strong voice and the synergy of the cast that they can make such a threadbare premise so exciting. The family is fleshed out extensively and getting comfortable with their outlandish behavior, as if you’re a member of the family yourself, is part of the charm. But man, are they messed up (and Mark Heap’s performance as their neighbor, Jim, is a work of art – he might seriously be an alien…). With every episode of the series stemming from a familiar place and ostensibly always set in the same location, it seems like the perfect show equipped to knock out outstanding bottle episodes, and “The Girlfriend” is a representative outing of the show at its best.

Opening the show’s third season, “The Girlfriend” was surely seen as an introductory episode of sorts for a lot of new viewers and so it appropriately feels as such. It comfortably takes its time as it reintroduces you to these characters in the most pitch-perfect ways. The episode deals with – as one might expect from the title – the overly rote situation of Adam bringing a girlfriend home with this dysfunctional family needing to act on their best behavior. The show is fully aware of this, and as soon as the episode begins we see that it’s pretty much business as usual as Martin (Paul Ritter), the father, has gotten ketchup all over his bare chest. It’s not long before he steps in dog excrement and chooses to flush his foot in the toilet as the natural coping mechanism for this.

Again, due to the series’ structure many of its entries technically qualify as bottle episodes, and the premise even revolves around these people being “forced” to meet together. In spite of that, the series never feels required to stay within the Goodman household, and they often take detours outside. “The Girlfriend” feels like a particularly good example for this feature though because not only is the entire episode within their home (with only a minor opening scene being outside in their driveway), it’s also one that explores the feeling of claustrophobia for Adam (Simon Bird). He actually has something on the line this time and his family feels more like a noose than ever, with this weekly tradition seeming more like an unavoidable death sentence than it has before. Even when Adam’s girlfriend, Emma, has had enough and runs outside to leave, Adam tries to follow her until ultimately stepping in dog shit and retreating back indoors. His one opportunity to leave and arguably pursue a normal life with a regular person is denied as he is forced to stay inside of this bottle. He is a part of this family and that means never being able to escape.

While that might feel like a grim idea, especially in situations like this where all that Adam’s left with is a nearly-nine year-old that’s hot for him, it’s also a reaffirmation of how powerful and encouraging a family is. The whole point of this series returning to such familiar ideas every episode – Jonny hatching a prank, Martin embarrassing himself (with as little clothing on as possible), and Jim and his dog, Wilson, continuing to vibrate on another frequency entirely – is that this is comforting.

This makes us laugh.

This makes us feel a part of something, and it’s in that respect that just as much as “The Girlfriend” is an example of a bottle episode that pushes the limits of humility and tension, it’s also one that makes us feel close to those around us (whether we have a choice in the matter or not). Friday Night Dinner is a show that always keeps these two dynamics of the bottle episode in play. What’s more claustrophobic than a hug, after all?

While it very much feels like the dysfunction of this family is going to be the main antagonizer, the episode blows up in a fantastic way as Emma’s younger sister begins sexting Adam and he chooses to confide this in the worst person in the world, Jonny. Suddenly it feels like the walls of this dinner are increasingly moving in, as a nerve gas is gradually deployed with Jonny being the one wielding the controls. This series has a wonderful way of heightening its storylines with you not even realizing that they’re all transforming into mountains from humble molehills. Before you know it everything has dovetailed in a Seinfeld-ian way that peaks with a completely frenzied energy.

Since the episode is in such a tight space with a rather small cast, it gets great mileage out of Adam’s phone containing the pictures of Emma’s sister. The phone becomes a hand grenade in a sense as it moves from person to person throughout the closed quarters, the tension mounting each time in a different way regarding who has the phone and if this time bomb is going to explode or not.

When the explosion does happen, it’s by another bomb entirely and in the end it’s of course Adam’s family that’s left to help him pick up the pieces. Friday Night Dinner reminds us that sometimes getting trapped in a bottle isn’t a fluke occurrence or a once in a lifetime situation, but rather just the way you might live your life. “The Girlfriend” shows us that even though your inmates might make your experience torture, there’s also a reason that you’re in there with them.