Russian author Leo Tolstoy opened "Anna Karenina" by suggesting that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Leave it to British writer Robert Popper ("Peep Show") to point out, however, that happy families likewise can be unique. That's certainly true of the Goodmans, the warm but fractious Jewish family in "Friday Night Dinner," a new Britcom currently airing Saturdays on BBC America.
The specificity of each character leaves you feeling almost as if you are eavesdropping. Adult siblings Adam and Jonny (Simon Bird of "The Inbetweeners" and newcomer Tom Rosenthal) instantly regress to sparring adolescents on each visit, while eccentric father Martin (Paul Ritter) keeps taking off his shirt at inappropriate moments. Wife and mom Jackie (Tamsin Greig of Showtime's "Episodes") just tries to maintain order and rise above it all.
"I wanted to do a show about a family but not just another family sitcom, if you know what I mean," says Popper, who loosely based the Goodmans on his own family. "I thought that the more specific it was, the more relatable it would be to people. I wanted people to watch and think, 'That family on TV do this thing. We don't do the same thing, but we do this (instead).' "
Don't look for the Goodmans to act like U.K. counterparts to Jerry's family on "Seinfeld," though. Popper says he's never really been able to relate to that Jewish comedy archetype.
"I would see British comedies or dramas where, if they did have a Jewish character, it was always, 'Oy, vey!' and I would think, 'I don't think I've ever met anyone like that,' " he says. "My family and friends all talk probably much faster than everyone else, and we argue a lot and we talk over each other, and it's quite dramatic, but it's not all 'Why don't you eat something?' and talking about kosher food and every time you light the candles the violin music starts playing."
Family quirks at the heart of BBC America's 'Friday Night Dinner'
Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal (clockwise from top left)