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The Subversive Pleasures of The Nanny

There’s more to the show’s resurgence than just nostalgia.
  • Renée Taylor, Lauren Lane, Fran Drescher, Charles Shaughnessy and Ann Morgan Guilbert in The Nanny.
    Renée Taylor, Lauren Lane, Fran Drescher, Charles Shaughnessy and Ann Morgan Guilbert in The Nanny.

    Few would have predicted that The Nanny would find its way back into the zeitgeist after HBO Max began streaming reruns of the series earlier this year, but here we are in 2021 and Fran Drescher’s 25 year-old sitcom is having another moment.

    For those who came of age in the nineties, clearly there’s a nostalgia component. The series, which ran from 1993 to 1999, occupied the liminal space between the 1980s and the late 1990s, the latter of which saw the premiere of “edgier” TV comedies like Friends, Frasier, and Will & Grace. Its sit-commy aesthetic — including its (incredibly catchy) theme song and animated sequence, punchlines, and premise — makes The Nanny seem incredibly old fashioned from today’s perspective and almost certainly contributes to its appeal.

    But there’s also a subversiveness that lurks beneath the show’s seemingly placid sitcom surface. Fran, along with her mother Sylvia (Renée Taylor), her grandmother Yetta (Ann Morgan Guilbert), and her sometimes-ally and sometimes-nemesis C.C. Babcock (Lauren Lane), embody what the film scholar Kathleen Rowe Carlin has called “the unruly woman.” As Carlin explains it, the unruly woman upends the conventions of normative feminine behavior, using her laughter, her body, and her sexuality to challenge patriarchal power. So many of the pleasures that The Nanny offers its viewers derive from the ways in which these women constantly challenge the male voices of authority — particularly Maxwell (Charles Shaughnessy), but also to a lesser degree Niles (Daniel Davis) — inviting an embrace of a femininity that refuses to obey the rules.

    Fran is the most obvious example. With Drescher’s elaborately-teased hair, nasally voice, and ability to take a pratfall with the ease of comedy greats like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, her character repeatedly punctures the stuffy, British uptightness exemplified by her boss (and perpetual love interest) Maxwell Sheffield. To put it bluntly, Fran is a force of chaos in the Sheffield household; wherever she goes, disruption follows. If Maxwell manages to line up what seems to be a successful Broadway production, somehow Fran will get involved and the edifice will come crashing down around them. If Maxwell sneers at her womanly ways, usually with a sly aside to his butler Niles, she finds a way to bring him back to earth, revealing, among other things, how men gossip just as much as women.

    Then there are Fran’s outfits. She seems to toggle between two extremes: high fashion and gaudy excess (with some occasional overlap). Even 25 years later, the internet loves her fashion sense, and it’s easy to see why: she’s nothing less than a fashion icon. Sometimes her wardrobe reflects a certain “bimbo” aesthetic — a term she uses to describe herself. At others it suggests that she knows how to dress appropriately for formal occasions. Above all, it demonstrates that Fran, like so many other unruly women in sitcoms, knows how to use her body, and her clothes, to reflect her inner self and, just as importantly, to attract men.

    There’s an archness and a sexiness to the writing of The Nanny that belies its “safe” sitcom appearance. Though the first season focused more on Fran’s relationship with Maxwell’s three children, as the series progressed she came to have more of a dating life, and there are numerous times when the show puts its toe right on the line of network acceptability. Most strikingly, Fran owns her sexuality in a way that, even today, is distressingly rare in network television.

    As subversively funny and disruptive as Fran is, she’s matched in many regards by the divine Renee Taylor as her mother Sylvia. Everything that makes Fran what she is — the hair, the outfits, the voice — are exponentially more obvious with Sylvia. Her character is impossible to look away from; even at her most abrasive, she exudes a powerful magnetism and charisma. What’s more, Sylvia lives life on her terms: she regularly devours any food in sight, she constantly hectors both Fran and her husband (the unseen Morty), and she’s prone to erupting into the Sheffield home without an invitation. There’s not a self-conscious bone in her body, and even though she regularly goes on diets, it’s clear each time that she’s not really that invested in changing her body or her behavior to match up with society’s expectations of older women.

    Sylvia’s mother Yetta is unruly in a different sort of way. Though she dresses as outlandishly as her daughter and granddaughter, she’s not nearly as loud. She is, however, just as sexually driven, and she often forgets … well, almost everything. Like Sylvia (and Fran), she frequently (and hilariously) inserts herself into the Sheffield household, though fortunately for Maxwell she’s not quite as disruptive. In some ways, Yetta picks up where Sophia Petrillo, the sassy octogenarian of The Golden Girls left off. (The Nanny premiered just months after The Golden Girls aired its finale.)

    Last but not least there’s C.C. Babcock, Maxwell’s business partner and Niles’ nemesis. Though not as outlandish as Fran, Sylvia, or Yetta, she has her own disruptive attributes, from her ability to get under Niles’ skin with a well-aimed insult, to her penchant for erupting into bizarre laughter or outbursts of emotional agony (the latter of which typically accompany a moment in which Fran has snatched Maxwell away from her). These outlandish moments are all the more striking given that C.C. is a woman very much on her dignity, with her blonde hair, icy hauteur, and peak-1990s shoulder pads.

    Even now, two decades after it left the air, there’s something refreshingly subversive about the comedy of The Nanny. Just as Fran’s working-class Queens origins soften the edges of Maxwell’s upper-class Manhattan masculinity, this show reminds contemporary viewers of the pleasures to be had in subverting behavioral expectations. Like all of the sharpest sitcoms, the series invites audiences to laugh with its characters rather than simply at them. There’s never a doubt that Fran, Sylvia, C.C., and even Yetta (for all of her daffiness) know what they’re doing and how the world looks at them. They live life on their own terms — without apologies — and in doing so invite viewers, both in the 1990s and in the 2020s, to do the same.

    All six seasons of The Nanny are now streaming on HBO Max.

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    Dr. Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B's podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

    TOPICS: The Nanny, HBO Max, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Charles Shaughnessy, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Lauren Lane, Renée Taylor, Retro TV