The Complete Series (1993 – 1999) (Shout! Factory-2015)
It’s hard to remember now, with all the years of reruns, jokes about Fran Drescher’s voice, Beautician and the Beast, the oddball tabloid stories, Happily Divorced and the inevitable marching on of time, but for a brief white hot pop culture period, The Nanny was by far one of the funniest shows on television.
Yes. That’s right. I will go further. When it was hitting on all cylinders, The Nanny was funnier than just about any other network sitcom on television in the 1990s, with the exception of Seinfeld (and possibly Spin City). It’s most certainly aged better than Friends or Frasier or The Drew Carey Show or Mad About You.
Okay, towards the end the show got long in tooth and they finally succumbed to the will-they-or-won’t-they trap that has killed so many sitcoms, but for the first few seasons at least, The Nanny was a perfect storm of actress and role. The first season alone still has as many laughs as just about any sitcom made in the 1990s. Yes, it was that good.
You may just want to skim over the last couple of seasons. Still, even with those later, less-rewarding episodes, this box set is a multitude of riches.
And yet The Nanny was as simple as simple can be: the old sitcom standby storyline of a person who has no business bringing up small children suddenly landing into a care-giving position.
Fran Fine (Fran Drescher) was a flashy girl from Flushing, Queens (as the catchy theme song explains) – big hair, tight clothes, nasal voice, working class Jewish attitudes – who through a completely ridiculous set of situations that could never occur in real life becomes the nanny for the three neurotic children. Making that even better, they are kids of a gorgeous and rich Broadway musical producer (and he’s straight!) Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy).
Therefore, Fran moves in amongst the upper crust, sharing the to-die-for mansion with the family as well as Mr. Sheffield’s snooty assistant CC (Lauren Lane) and the Sheffields’ crusty butler Niles. As Niles, Daniel Davis was this show’s secret weapon, creating one of the most deadpan hilarious characters of 90s television. Niles regularly stole scenes from his more demonstrative co-stars.
Even though she lived amongst the upper crust, the Queens Jewish life always followed Fran around, mostly in the form of her dim best friend Val (Rachel Chagall), her loud, boisterous mother (Renée Taylor) and father (who was one of those sitcom characters who was often discussed but not actually seen.) There was also a crazy funny performance by Dick Van Dyke Show vet Ann Guilbert as the slightly dotty grandma Yetta. (“One nice thing about senility, you’re always meeting new people,” was the kind of typically non-PC joke that worked much better than it had any right to.)
The storylines were typical fish-out-of-water stuff, as the streetwise Fran mistakenly causes a near catastrophe, but with quick thinking and the help of a guest celebrity is able to save the day in style (of course, this being the 90s, the style had more hairspray and loud colors than today). It was a celebration of all things Jewish (including our leader, Barbra Streisand), and yet it was relatable to any one of any culture.
Somehow, though I’m sure it was not through lack of trying, they never got Streisand to do a cameo as herself. However, a huge and surreal grouping of b-celebs passed through these hallowed halls – either playing themselves or a character.
Just a small sampling of these visiting celebs include Elton John, Jason Alexander, Shari Lewis and Lambchop, Jay Leno, Coolio, Roger Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor, Andrew Dice Clay, Bette Midler, Milton Berle, David Letterman, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Billy Ray Cyrus, Lynn Redgrave, Brian Setzer, Hugh Grant, Eydie Gormé, Dan Aykroyd, Michael Bolton, Erik Estrada, Chevy Chase, Rita Moreno, Lainie Kazan, Celine Dion, Cloris Leachman, Eartha Kitt, Shemar Moore, Margaret Cho and many more.
Pay particular attention to the season four episode “The Rosie Show” in which a pre-feud Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump both played themselves and didn’t kill each other. Many of the actors – Steve Lawrence and Whoopi Goldberg, for example – played both themselves and a character in different episodes.
Despite the glut of b-celebs guesting on The Nanny, there are surprisingly few future big stars who pop up here: James (back then he was still called Jimmy) Marsden plays a caterer who gives the oldest daughter her first kiss, a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart had a date with Fran, Nikki Cox was a local debutant and future The Wire standout Lance Reddick played a stage hand.
However, in the long run, The Nanny was the perfect showcase for its lead actress, Fran Drescher – even better than her breakout role in This is Spinal Tap as record publicist Bobbi Flekman. (As a special bonus, in the fourth season Drescher even revived the Flekman character, essentially playing a romantic rival of herself for Mr. Sheffield.)
The Nanny was often corny or crass or silly, but it was also often surprisingly funny. This is old-school sitcom making, and it’s done damned well. Drescher has been trying ever since to recreate the magic of the show, but I doubt it can be done. The Nanny is one of those lightning in a bottle situations that probably can’t be duplicated, but for one brief shining period shone bright.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 26, 2015.