Exactly what the doctor prescribed: 30 years on, The Nanny holds up

Deceptively smart and often radically meta, this sitcom starring Fran Drescher as the flashy girl from Flushing is still very fun to watch

This column frequently touts the merits of shows with hidden depths. Unrecognised artistry. And I’m particularly fond of finding prestige television that masquerades as popcorn garbage. But sometimes, a spoon is just a spoon. Sometimes, a show is precisely what it markets itself to be. Sometimes, a Fran is Fine just the way it is.

The Nanny, one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, has endured for a reason. The premise is laid out cleanly in the charming opening title sequence, complete with explanatory song. Subtext? Pfft. Hidden meaning? Nope! Nothing is left up to interpretation. We don’t just meet the characters during this peppy introduction, we’re also told what the arc of their development over the show’s tenure will be.

The intro to The Nanny.

Fran Fine (Fran Drescher, most often in the news right now as president of the actors guild Sag-Aftra), a stunning, down-to-earth shop attendant from Queens who somehow flukes her way into becoming the nanny for the family of Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), an uptight British theatre producer. Along for the ride is his snarky butler, Niles (Daniel Davis), his producing partner, CC Babcock (Lauren Lane), and his three kids: Maggie (Nicholle Tom), Brighton (Benjamin Salisbury) and Grace (Madeline Zima). The smaller Fine clan includes her mother, Sylvia (Renée Taylor) and Grandma Yetta (Ann Morgan Guilbert), who was less an old woman and more Yiddish Yoda.

Fran is loud, honest, outspoken and vulgar. But she’s also a wonderful combination of the myriad aspects of womanhood. One moment she’ll swan into a room exuding such sex appeal that the windows almost get blown out; in the next, she’ll pick spinach from between her teeth. She’ll flirt like a champ, then blow it completely. She’s so complex, loving, passionate and downright weird that, before long, she wins over the entire Sheffield clan.

Over six seasons between 1993 and 1999, 12 Emmy nominations (one of which it won) and a coveted Rose d’Or, The Nanny became a cross-cultural phenomenon. Every week, viewers tuned in to watch Fran edge closer and closer along the tightrope of will they, won’t they with the silver fox Maxwell Sheffield, only to have her progress reset every week. Character development in The Nanny was glacially incremental, at least until season five, when the showrunners seemingly realised that nobody, not even fictional characters, evolve that little over time.

This doesn’t really detract from the show at all. At least, not enough to make it less fun to watch. Drescher’s almost Chaplin-esque ability to careen about like a human ragdoll means The Nanny can go from vintage Hepburn-Tracy screwball flirtatiousness to physical pratfalls at a moment’s notice.

‘Odd casting choices were often acknowledged point blank’: Ray Charles in The Nanny.

‘Odd casting choices were often acknowledged point blank’: singer Ray Charles appears in The Nanny. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Fran isn’t the only fully fleshed out character in The Nanny: everyone has strong foundations and every performer absolutely nails the brief. In fact, I’d argue that the highlight of the show is watching Niles and CC utterly eviscerate one another, volleying laugh-out-loud barbs with such acerbity and wit that my dad would, if in the next room, run in to see the fireworks. Their dynamic levelled up even more when the barbs became flirtations, likely leading a generation of viewers to develop mild butler fetishes as a result.

The Nanny was also deceptively smart, routinely breaking the fourth wall. Later in the show’s run, Drescher appeared as herself opposite Fran Fine. Odd casting choices were often acknowledged point blank. It was meta, but not on a level that felt alienating or intellectual. After all, the Sheffields were there to make fun of privilege; Fran was there to make fun of the boorish. But both sides had something positive to bring to the table. There’s value in crossing the cultural divide, the show asserts. You’re more alike than you think. There’s common ground. Sure, it’ll take an ocean of misunderstandings, mishaps, false starts and blatant horniness to get there – but you’ll get there.

In the so-called golden age of television, where every show has a billion intersecting layers of meaning and colour and sound, there is something almost clinical about The Nanny’s unfettered pithiness. It’s exactly what the doctor prescribed.

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