Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of The Nanny (1993-1999, CBS), which is currently available on DVD and HBO Max.
The Nanny stars FRAN DRESCHER as Fran, CHARLES SHAUGHNESSY as Mr. Sheffield, DANIEL DAVIS as Niles, LAUREN LANE as C.C., NICHOLLE TOM as Maggie, BENJAMIN SALISBURY as Brighton, and MADELINE ZIMA as Gracie. With RACHEL CHAGALL as Val, ANN GUILBERT as Yetta, and RENÉE TAYLOR as Sylvia.
In its second season, The Nanny is already using its premise less often to inspire weekly story — offering fewer plots that directly relate to the central tension of Fran as both “a fish out of water” and a proxy mother/wife. This is not ideal, for at this point in its life, every sitcom should be able to claim that its premise is still novel enough for regular invocation… And, okay, to be fair, The Nanny‘s central conceits are still freshly, repeatedly invoked in Two… they’re just less guiding than before, for now there are many more of the gimmicks and stunts for which The Nanny is better known — cheap cameos, jokes predicated on metatheatrical winks, and stories that have little to do with the series’ “situation,” stretching the bounds of the first year’s aesthetic realism in the process. In essence, the storytelling has become more episodically idea-led, and that makes it inherently hit-and-miss. However, if that’s how this season is less laudable in comparison to its predecessor, Two is also an equal improvement over its predecessor, for not only has the show stepped into a bolder sensibility with its humor, it’s also earning its yuks by doing more with the well-defined adults — including C.C. and Niles, along with Fran’s family, Sylvia and Yetta. The latter are an extension of Fran’s persona and naturally emphasize the differences between her and the rest of Mr. Sheffield’s world. Eventually, they’ll become an overused distraction, but here, they add to the series’ charms — bringing laughs that highlight the main characterizations. What’s more, although other aspects of the premise are downplayed, Two boasts more of the Fran/Sheffield relationship — teasing a possible romance before positioning their bond as the sole purpose of story in the year’s second half, thereby restoring a situation-specific underpinning to episodic narratives and resurrecting a novelty of premise that could make this era, with its “knowingness” of character, the series’ “peak.” And indeed, as we’ll see, both this show’s comedy and its rom-com engine will continue to grow in Three, rendering Two a special transition from the first year’s stricter, more literal use of the series’ premise, to Three’s funnier and more relationship-focused alternative. So, this may not be the best year, but it sits between two forms of greatness, with plenty to celebrate on its own — of its own — as well.
01) Episode 23: “Fran-Lite” (Aired: 09/12/94)
Mr. Sheffield’s new girlfriend is very similar to Fran.
Written by Janis Hirsch | Directed by Lee Shallat
Season Two opens with a preview of the year’s eventual focus on the relationship between Fran and Mr. Sheffield via this otherwise familiar sitcom story about one member of a “will they/won’t they” pairing dating somebody who is very similar to the other member of said pairing (although they themselves can’t see it), indicating their subconscious desires. It’s an easily amusing idea that won’t gain any points for originality, but it validates a central element of the show’s identity — not to mention Fran’s character — so its laughs are rooted in the specifics of The Nanny. Also, there’s fun in the subplot with Brighton feeling intimidated by the other boys at school based on his size (which, of course, Fran interprets to mean something else). That yields yuks and adds to the premiere’s elevated comic tone. Tracy Kolis guests.
02) Episode 25: “Everybody Needs A Bubby” (Aired: 09/26/94)
Grandma Yetta comes to stay with Fran while her nursing home is fumigated.
Written by Diane Wilk | Directed by Lee Shallat
Ann Guilbert makes her return as Grandma Yetta in this fun outing that offers our first chance to see three generations of Fine women all together — Yetta, Sylvia, and Fran — and their interplay is a hoot. Additionally, as noted, they’re a collective contrast to Mr. Sheffield and all the people who inhabit his world, and as an extension of Fran’s persona, their intrusion into his life emphasizes her characterization and reinforces the premise. Oh, heck, it’s also just a delight to see more of these hilarious women anyway — the remarkable Guilbert and the always hysterical Renée Taylor. As for the story itself, it’s fairly routine — Yetta is bringing home men and dispensing questionable advice — but it’s a guaranteed hit, using established characters for comedy, and with the series’ concept in support. (Ralph Manza and Barry Watson appear.)
03) Episode 29: “A Star Is Unborn” (Aired: 10/24/94)
Fran is hired to star in a Shakespeare play, causing problems at the Sheffield house.
Written by Pamela Eells & Sally Lapiduss | Directed by Gail Mancuso
One of two entries in Two with scripts that seem to have been written among the first season’s batch, this installment also teases the possibility of a Fran and Mr. Sheffield romance as they share another kiss — well, “in character,” when he helps her rehearse for a production of Romeo & Juliet in which she’s been cast. To that point, the comedy of this episode largely comes from the fact that Fran is a terrible actress — something her crooked producers are deliberately banking on — and yet, what really makes it worthwhile for this list is how it plays with the framework of Fran and Mr. Sheffield being in a proxy marriage, with her essentially performing the role of his wife. So, this is an interesting blend of Seasons One and Two — where the literal premise meets a broader, more boldly comic idea and a relationship-specific focus.
04) Episode 32: “The Whine Cellar” (Aired: 11/14/94)
C.C. and Fran accidentally get locked in the cellar during Sylvia’s birthday party.
Written by Eileen O’Hare | Directed by Lee Shallat
Another familiar sitcom idea is deployed in this outing, which locks two opposing characters together in one place at the same time — in this case, it’s Fran and her one-sided rival C.C. However, while this is an unoriginal narrative trope, it’s a device that can often yield character-based rewards, for it forces direct interaction, which means conflict, which means divergent personalities often get emphasized in the process (especially when alcohol is involved). That certainly happens here, although the bonding between the two women is mostly focused on their mutual affection for Mr. Sheffield, and I therefore consider it evidence of the series slowly starting to realize that accentuating the rom-com possibilities between Fran and her boss is the best way to reinforce the premise, utilizing these leads’ other individual relationships as mutual support. Beyond just this narrative value though, “The Whine Cellar” also boasts Sylvia and Yetta, and a jokey script that typifies this season’s special ethos. An MVE contender.
05) Episode 35: “The Strike” (Aired: 11/28/94)
Both Fran and Mr. Sheffield ask for more support from each other.
Written by Janis Hirsch | Directed by Lee Shallat
Truthfully, this one’s not a favorite of mine, because it’s dominated by two very gaudy set pieces that don’t feel earned by the characters — the central drama at Mr. Sheffield’s new show where they must cross a picket line, and the climax on Sally Jessy Raphael (who appears as herself), where the leads hash out their disagreement. But both beats are reflective of Season Two’s exaggerated hit-and-miss idea-led quality, and because this script is supported by a narrative that calls upon the premised concept of Fran and Mr. Sheffield being proxy parents and a proxy couple, at home where they raise his kids and out in the world for his professional endeavors — not to mention for a story where their contrasting classes are relevant to a class-based (and thus character-related) clash — this is unique enough to The Nanny that it’s citable as an example of situation comedy, tailored specifically to this series and its particular givens.
06) Episode 38: “Canasta Masta” (Aired: 01/09/95)
Brighton joins Sylvia and Yetta’s canasta team.
Written by Frank Lombardi & Dana Reston | Directed by Lee Shallat
This installment mostly makes this list because it claims the funny logline of Brighton joining the Fine women in a canasta tournament. The contrast of a young kid and these old ladies is inherently amusing, and it’s also an opportunity for more laughs from both Yetta and Sylvia, two emissaries of Fran, who are juxtaposed against Brighton, an emissary of Sheffield. In this regard, there’s tangential affiliation with the premise… That said, I can’t lie; I’m not crazy about the Atlantic City centerpiece (where Steve Lawrence, prior to playing Morty in the final season, has a cameo alongside Eydie Gormé), which feels like a splashy letdown. Of course, I do think it’s also indicative of the year’s idea-led nature — and with a bevy of Gilligan’s Island jokes, this script also samples the series’ interest in TV-related metatheatrical and self-referential winks (as a distraction from character), so by that token, studying this entry reveals both some of the best and worst of Season Two. (Also, the Niles dancing gag is a fun little moment as well.)
07) Episode 41: “A Fine Friendship” (Aired: 02/06/95)
Fran befriends a male nanny whom she assumes is gay.
Teleplay by Eileen O’Hare | Story by Kirsten Vensel, Bill Marich, & Rich Ross | Directed by Lee Shallat
Christopher Rich (Murphy Brown) guest stars in this excursion as a male nanny whom Fran befriends, under the mistaken assumption that he’s gay. There’s really nothing great about that comic idea, until Mr. Sheffield is thrown into the mix and it starts to become clear that any romantic story regarding Fran is actually going to be an opportunity now for the series to tease, comment upon, and build towards the likely romantic pairing of its leads — a premised possibility, and something that the latter half of Two is starting to use explicitly as the foundation for its stories. Meanwhile, I also appreciate this episode for its fun subplot where Gracie misunderstands a soap opera and thinks that she is pregnant — it jibes with her precociously neurotic persona from Season One and adds incidental laughs.
08) Episode 43: “Close Shave” (Aired: 02/20/95)
When Fran covers for Maggie as a hospital candy striper, she’s forced to tend to Mr. Sheffield.
Written by Elliot Stern | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
One of the year’s most popular offerings, I must admit that I find a lot of this entry’s narrative maneuverings to be strained and heavy-handed, for although the idea of Maggie becoming a temporary candy striper at the hospital (working under Friends‘ Christina Pickles) starts as a moderately relatable parenting plot, the script really toils to get Fran to take her place for the evening… and all for its desired centerpiece, where Mr. Sheffield comes in for an unplanned surgery, and she, as a candy striper, is required to shave him — a prospect that’s titillating given their growing sexual chemistry. That climax, in itself, is an amusing thought, but as you can see, it stretches a lot to get there, and if not for the fact that this kind of juvenile teasing is highly indicative of Season Two’s interests, I’d probably keep it among the Honorable Mentions.
09) Episode 44: “What The Butler Sang” (Aired: 02/27/95)
Niles prepares for a big audition, while Fran’s recently separated sister visits.
Written by Diane Wilk | Directed by Lee Shallat
There are two different but solid ideas in this outing, which hopes to converge them for a comic climax that is basically successful, if a bit labored in how it restores the status quo. The first idea is the notion that Niles is a great singer and is preparing for a backers’ audition hosted by Mr. Sheffield. There’s no prior continuity to support this character trait and make the story feel motivated by his depiction outside of this half hour… but it is called back upon in later scripts, so with hindsight, we can consider it not as self-contained as it first looks. The second idea sees Fran being visited by her separated sister, who hits on Mr. Sheffield — a subplot that plays to the Fran/Sheffield relationship and thus causes appropriate drama… before a physical centerpiece that’s somewhat forced, as it’s made to disrupt Niles’ audition and ensure that his “situation” does not change — the status quo maintains… And yet, if this installment is not as artful as it could be, the ideas themselves are comical, and additive for character and premise.
10) Episode 46: “Strange Bedfellows” (Aired: 05/08/95)
Fran worries about her future when a fellow nanny is forced into retirement.
Written by Frank Lombardi & Dana Reston | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Strange Bedfellows” contains another common sitcom trope for its “will they/won’t they” couple, as the central pair accidentally winds up in bed together, insisting that nothing happened, even though, by this point, the show makes clear that they’re very much on each other’s mind. I think the mere inclusion of this well-worn narrative notion would earn this entry a spot on my list, for it plays directly into what the second season has been building — the thrilling possibility of romance for its two core characters, in this “modified family” format where she is the proxy matriarch. Accordingly, any story that wants to explore and capitalize on the leads’ burgeoning and tension-filled dynamic is affiliated with the series’ “situation” and fulfilling this premise’s promise to the audience… while, again, emphasizing their distinct characterizations, which thrive when juxtaposed… However, the reason this is my MVE isn’t just because it’s an ideal story — typical of late Season Two, as the show is entering a “peak era” — but also because of the foundation that gets the characters there, with Tyne Daly playing a fellow nanny who’s forced into retirement now that her kids are growing up. Fran sees this poor lady’s fate as a taste of her own future, and that’s why she gets drunk and stumbles into Mr. Sheffield’s bed — meaning, it’s motivated by her insecurities related to her current situation as a de facto wife/mom… not the real thing. This is a great character-rooted moment, then, connected to the premise and perfectly able to justify the clichéd bed centerpiece. So, as far as predictable narratives go, this one is handled better than most (it’s much more character-based than the Who’s The Boss? variation), and that’s a testament to The Nanny’s unique elements, and how this script is able to utilize them specifically to inspire and earn its ideas. (Also, there are a lot of laughs — Niles and C.C. are especially good here, making this a wholly wonderful display of character.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Curse Of The Grandmas,” which is enjoyable because it offers more of Grandma Yetta, along with “Pishke Business,” which has a great idea where Fran must pretend to be C.C., but it lets itself down by not really deriving its laughs based on their contrasting personas, and “The Nanny Behind The Man,” which again is fun because of Yetta’s involvement. Meanwhile, closest to the above list was “The Will,” which I appreciate for how it utilizes the premise’s “proxy mother” construct and Mr. Sheffield’s known rivalry with Andrew Lloyd Webber when trying to justify a central misunderstanding that is otherwise neither funny enough nor original enough to be called a good example of sitcommery. (Oh, and I do like some of the hahas in the nevertheless indefensible “Lamb Chop’s On The Menu” and recognize the kiss-driven value of “A Kiss Is Just A Kiss.”)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Nanny goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!