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The Nanny – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

The Nanny

The Complete First Season - 1993-1994 (Sony-2005)

The Nanny is a series that is sure to turn off a large portion of the population immediately. How unfortunate. It’s so much better than the initial impression it makes. For a show that celebrates life on the shallow surface, it should not be dismissed as such.

The urbane, super-sitcomy, oy-vey version of The Sound of Music hits the bulls’ eye on so many levels, thanks mostly to the charm and tongue-in-cheekiness of its star, Fran Drescher. Her powerful charisma carries what could have otherwise been a teeth-gritting disaster.

Playing a street-tough Jewish girl from Queens who finds herself as a stylin’ nanny in the WASPy world of Upper-East-Side Manhattan, Drescher is flooring it in the driver’s seat from start to finish. It’s the role of a lifetime, and she knows it. She milks it for all its worth, and winks at us because we’re watching her be aware of her good fortune – both in real life and on the series – and we’re cheering her on. However, listen to her DVD commentary, and you’ll quickly learn that this articulate, smart businesswoman is no mere nanny from the block.

This is a fish-out-of-water story that is all about the fish who refuses to be out of water. As Fran the nanny, Drescher wears her Jewishness as a badge of honor. Unlike other Jewish-themed sitcoms and its codified characters that hide or neutralize its Jewishness (even the brilliant and brash Seinfeld is guilty of this), The Nanny takes its Jewish stereotypes to extremes never before seen on TV. Even Rhoda Morgenstern (played by a non-Jewish Valerie Harper on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda) barely acknowledged her ethnicity. Here, Drescher pays homage to her heritage every five minutes (though only as seriously as a Catskills comic).

Never before have Yiddish words been used on a mainstream sitcom so openly and without shame (The WASPy family bears witness to her phrases -- like plotz, kvell, oy, and you got a little schmutz on your face – and then they eventually use the infectious words themselves, making for double-sided comedy.).

True, the blatant stereotyping will have its detractors. The series is a walking advertisement for one-dimensionalness, pulling off all the plastic slipcovers – the usual suspects are brought out of mothballs, from bagels and lox to white sales, leopard prints and Christmas in Miami. When confronting the inevitable Christmas-versus-Hanukah conversation, Fran says of Santa Claus, “I believe in anyone that delivers.” And when the little girl says to her physician, “I don’t want a gentle doctor,” Fran corrects her with, “that’s gentile.”

Still there is real feeling here. The children are often a necessary evil from which to schlep along the weekly plots; however, they have an authentic need for this colorful woman who sashays into their lives like a Lucille-Ball-like Mae West, and its effects are warming and winning.

The real story is that the nanny and her employer will fall in love, and like most will-they-or-won’t-they storylines on television, it’s unnaturally prolonged. The children quickly become an afterthought, but when they are used correctly, it’s sweet and believable.

With almost every opportunity to go for the funny bone, it’s a score. There are always some mild clunkers (“I love your steaks,” Fran says to the Duke of Salisbury), but then the ball is quickly picked up, with true radiance (She asks her mother, “Why can’t I find someone like [dad]? Deaf and on a pension?” Her mother reassures her with, “you will.”)

She teaches her proper charges how to buy from QVC. She educates them with endless stories about her creaky relatives. She instructs the teenaged daughter, “the secret to blush is ‘less is more.’ The exact opposite of hair spray.” And when they turn to American history, Fran observes of the Pilgrims, “very few people can wear a big hat, a big collar and a big buckle.”

It just feels right.

The blue-collar-meets-blue-blood concept flips back and forth evenly. Every actor seems to relish his or her role, making for snappy repartee in a perfect plot. As the droll butler, Niles, actor Daniel Davis takes dry cattiness to appointment-television status, while the Cruella DeVil of the series, C.C. Babcock (Lauren Lane) has big fun as the easy foil.

“I love weddings,” C.C. proclaims, while her tormentor, Niles, responds with, “we all want what we can’t have.” Me-ow. And in a rare moment of intolerance, Fran melts down in front of her employer with, “How do we know what you British are feeling? What, do you wear mood rings?”

In the 1990s, when television sitcoms were showing us new and bold, The Nanny was decidedly old-fashioned and retro. It even resorted to using happy-to-be-anywhere guest stars, like Dan Aykroyd, Twiggy and Rita Moreno (who even sang a line from West Side Story: “a boy like that, who killed your brudder…”). The show would devolve in seasons to come, but slowly and lazily. What does it matter – who doesn’t love a good fairy tale?

The series proves that any spin on The Beverly Hillbillies can work well, even the kosher plate.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: September 14, 2005.

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