Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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.
I’ll start with good news — there are not as many ostentatious cameos, metatheatrical winks, or outrageous narrative notions in Season Six as there were in the two years prior. Oh, yes, they’re not gone completely (heck, look at the casting of Steve Lawrence as Fran’s dad!), but since they’ve been scaled back, this reduction in gimmickry feels like a victory. Now for the bad news — there are still far too few stories that genuinely examine the leads or their premise following the central couple’s union. This remains my core criticism of these last three years — first the series refused to progress its status quo when a motivated shift needed to occur, and then when it finally did provide movement, it still wasn’t interested in offering narratives or comedy that utilized the tweaked “situation.” Accordingly, this made the formal coupling of Fran and Maxwell look fatal, when in actuality, The Nanny harmed its own sitcommery as it stalled their pairing, and then, after capitulating, by shying away from exploring their new dynamic in earned comic story, replacing the “situation” with cheap weekly stunts — many of them not driven by the leads. Again, Six still has all this — tacky ideas that the regulars don’t inspire — but mostly, that episodic void has now been filled by beats inside predictable dramatic arcs: clichéd sitcom fodder that, by the ’90s, shows knew they could easily indulge without much support, because these plots essentially drive themselves. We’re talking about stuff like Fran’s pregnancy (and her efforts to conceive), Maggie’s engagement, and even Niles’ pursuit of C.C., the last of which seems like it would highlight their characterizations and thus accentuate their rapport, but at this juncture, only feels manipulative — designed to reach a pre-determined endgame, where the regulars look like they’ve evolved, despite it never having occurred through story. To that point, you’ll notice I’m not featuring the series’ finale — where several Big Events transpire, but without the thematic summation or premise-based relevance that could make such an ending laudable. This speaks to a sad reality: The Nanny, though initially a well-crafted sitcom, has spent the entire back half of its run avoiding its own created possibilities for situation comedy. And this warped thinking continues to the very end — a once-good sitcom dies like a bad one.
01) Episode 126: “Fran Gets Shushed” (Aired: 10/07/98)
Fran and Maxwell each agree to moderate their personalities for each other.
Written by Caryn Lucas | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
After the good news and bad news shared above, I’ll add that I have another little piece of good news — for although I said this season didn’t do a great job of examining how a status quo change affects the series’ “situation” in story, I must admit that there are a few episodes that do engage with elements of the premise, utilizing the recent relational development to maximize thesis-connected but fresh narratives. They all aired early in the season — October 1998 — and this is the first, exploring what happens when Fran and Maxwell both attempt to adjust their personalities now that they’re coupled: she’ll be more “demure” and he’ll be more “loosey goosey.” It’s not a stellar half hour, but by attempting to modify its leads’ well-known personas, which are hinged on their differences, it’s highlighting the oppositional nature of their premised bond — now even more at the fore. So, it’s exactly the kind of plot that The Nanny should be offering here in Six… or, frankly, back in Five when they first paired.
02) Episode 127: “Once A Secretary, Always A Secretary” (Aired: 10/14/98)
Fran struggles with her new role in the family, so Maxwell hires another nanny.
Written by Allen Jay Zipper | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
Continuing on this all-too-brief streak in which The Nanny‘s final season is finally delivering sitcommery that’s related to its premise and in validation of the fact that, hey, evolution for the characters and their relationships doesn’t have to exist as a threat to a “situation,” but can actually create new dramatic tension that could be exploited in new kinds of DNA-affiliated story, this installment is an MVE contender, for it directly reconciles how Fran’s role in the household changes now that she’s gone from nanny to wife. This is therefore an important show logistically as well, as the audience must come to understand the dynamic that will now exist for the central couple, since she is no longer his employee. So, as with the above, this is exactly the type of story that we should have gotten last year… you know, when they first became romantically involved (or perhaps engaged)… But better late than never. (Plus, there’s a lot of fun here when a new nanny is hired, and then finds she has nothing to do…)
03) Episode 128: “Sara’s Parents” (Aired: 10/21/98)
Maxwell’s in-laws don’t take kindly to the idea of Fran adopting their grandchildren.
Written by Jayne Hamil | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Sara’s Parents” is Six’s most effective half-hour example of how the recent coupling, and marriage, of Fran and Maxwell can create drama that’s still related to the series’ premised “situation.” Its story introduces Maxwell’s former in-laws (Diane Baker and George Coe) — the kids’ grandparents — who come for a visit and automatically don’t take to Fran, not only because she’s so different from Sara and everyone else affiliated with their wealthier, higher-class world, but also because she’s the literal replacement for their daughter. This is a natural conflict that one would expect from this circumstance — a “modified family” with a stepmom instead of a biological mother — and this script smartly tailors its existence to the present season by adding in the wrinkle of Fran’s plans to adopt the children. That prospect was introduced in the previous year, and its callback here suggests some welcome continuity that helps revive the series’ strained aesthetic realism and makes this a show well-rooted in the unique particulars of The Nanny — both with the inclusion of Sara’s eponymous parents, and with the explicit narrative acknowledgement of how Fran’s “modified family” is continuing to evolve in this era. In that regard, only a sitcom like The Nanny could do this storyline and that’s why I celebrate it — this is the excursion that feels most entrenched in the series’ “situation,” and this year’s, specifically.
04) Episode 129: “Maggie’s Boyfriend” (Aired: 10/28/98)
Maxwell and Fran have different views when Maggie wants to move in with her boyfriend.
Written by Rick Shaw | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
Rounding out the superior month of October 1998, where every aired offering truly has some intelligent way to involve the premise now that its two leading players have enjoyed a shift in their centralized dynamic, this installment is predicated on both Fran and Maxwell’s contrasting ideas of parenting, which emphasizes their differences as individual characters — a juxtaposition that highlights just how well-defined the show naturally built them to be. Accordingly, although this entry is really designed to start the arc of Maggie’s eventual engagement and marriage, it’s supported by an examination of its two leads, whose opposing perspectives have come into even more direct conflict since Fran has gone from the kids’ nanny to stepmother, with even more of a say now in their upbringing.
05) Episode 130: “I’m Pregnant” (Aired: 11/04/98)
Maggie fears she may be pregnant.
Written by Ivan Menchell | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
This outing launches a handful of unfortunate pregnancy-focused stories, beginning here with Fran learning she’s expecting… only to find out in several weeks, after a health scare, it was a false positive. But since she’s now sure she wants kids, conceiving becomes her mission… and what do you know? That’s exactly what she does… just in time for a TV-perfect May Sweeps finale where she gives birth. All of that is the kind of traditional narrative tripe that sort of supplants genuine character-driven storytelling in Six, and I don’t enjoy it. However, I do enjoy this introduction to the idea, largely for the fake-out of Maggie’s possible pregnancy and Fran’s attempts to keep the news from Maxwell — which, again, speaks to their different parenting ideals — and there’s a great physical centerpiece where the ladies try to sneak around with the pregnancy test. (Nora Dunn guests in the recurring role of Fran’s doctor.)
06) Episode 135: “The In-Law Who Came Forever” (Aired: 01/06/99)
Sylvia and Morty move into the Sheffield house — indefinitely.
Teleplay by Rick Shaw | Story by Danny Passman, Michael Scalisi, & Rick Shaw | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
Over the years, Renée Taylor’s Sylvia has grown into quite the cartoon — with her large appetite becoming the primary source of her comedy — and this has rendered her, along with most of Fran’s family, an overused gimmick not well-invoked via the “situation” (i.e., how her persona is an extension of Fran’s, clashing with the Sheffields). But this final season does a better job of letting her seem a little more multi-dimensional, highlighting other aspects of her characterization, like her natural inclination to “mother” — and even though that means aggrandized “smothering,” it really adds some human value when it’s applied to Maxwell, who never got very much love from either of his parents (particularly his mom) and thus enjoys receiving it now from this live-in guest. It’s a classic reversal of expectations — we expect her to annoy him, since they’re both from completely different worlds — and the turnaround is great, especially because it’s well-supported by character. Also, Lainie Kazan makes her last appearance as Aunt Freida, yielding a memorable climax that adds to this installment’s overall appeal.
07) Episode 137: “The Yummy Mummy” (Aired: 02/03/99)
Brighton asks Fran to stop accompanying him on college visits.
Written by Cody Farley & Suzanne Myers | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
One of those outings that I probably wouldn’t include if not for needing ten total selections, “The Yummy Mummy” works best when it’s exploring the idea at the heart of its A-story, as Fran accompanies Brighton on a college tour and he is uncomfortable because of how attractive his peers find her to be, for when he asks her NOT to join him on any more of these visits, she believes he’s embarrassed due to her lack of both class and intelligence — insecurities that make her a “fish out of water” in the Sheffields’ world, drawing her as a contrast not only to Maxwell, but also to his kids (who are extensions of him) as well. This, then, is a premise-connected setup for plot, and the reason I highlight this entry here — not for its so-so Lynn Redgrave cameo or its clichéd “twins!” reveal. (Dakin Matthews and Nora Dunn also appear.)
08) Episode 140: “The Producers” (Aired: 06/09/99)
Niles and Fran concoct a scheme to produce a play so he’s more desirable in the eyes of C.C.
Teleplay by Rick Shaw | Story by Mike Dow, Chandler Evans, & Rick Shaw | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
Niles’ feelings for C.C. have been teased on-and-off over the years, through the classic sitcom trope of the bickering couple whose animosity belies sexual chemistry. I’ve only enjoyed it episodically, because that’s how this series has heretofore applied it, and while I typically would ask for more continuity to create more believability, the show’s comic ethos has been congruent with this kind of treatment, so I’ve held my criticism. In fact, I find it less believable now that Six turns his crush into an actual narrative engine, for although it doesn’t quite come out of nowhere, it seems very manipulatively convenient when arising just weeks before the finale. Fortunately, this offering — one of six burned off in the month following the “official” two-part closer — is able to make their pairing a worthwhile possibility, courtesy of a memorable plot where Fran and Niles scheme to produce a play: a way for him to elevate himself into a comparable station as C.C. and not feel “beneath” her. That’s a goal that reminds of Fran and Maxwell’s own class-based dynamic, and with the theatrical aspect of the series’ “situation” also engaged in support of these plot aims, I can say the specifics of The Nanny are well-used.
09) Episode 141: “The Dummy Twins” (Aired: 06/16/99)
Fran tries to help Niles in his continued pursuit of C.C.
Teleplay by Ivan Menchell | Story by Rachel Chagall, Harriet Goldman, Camelia Kath, & Ivan Menchell | Directed by Steve Posner
A follow-up to “The Producers,” this entry is not as favorable, for there’s a lot of running back and forth and bickering after Niles’ proposals are met with mocking hostility by C.C., and then moments of “schmuck bait,” as both claim to quit, before they predictably end up in bed. In this regard, it’s much more contrived, and not as well-supported by aspects of this series’ premise, counting upon the previously subplot-confined dynamic between Niles and C.C. to now do the A-story heavy-lifting with a forced endgame in mind. So, you can see how it could feel strained… Additionally, the subplot with the dummy twins is trite sitcom fare, and if not for the fact that I commend this series for its bold depictions of Niles and C.C. in spite of their narrative shortcomings, this would be an Honorable Mention. (Rita Rudner appears.)
10) Episode 142: “Yetta’s Letters” (Aired: 06/16/99)
Maxwell hopes to use Yetta’s old letters as the basis for a new musical.
Teleplay by Dan Amernick & Jay Amernick | Story by Dan Amernick, Jay Amernick, & Bernie Vyzga | Directed by Peter Marc Jacobson
Airing in the second half of an hour-long block with the above, this offering is one last fun display of the great Ann (Morgan) Guilbert as Grandma Yetta, whose old letters Maxwell wants to adapt into a musical… but only to spite his long-time rival, Andrew Lloyd Webber — a running gag that has nevertheless helped color quite a few stories over the years, and therefore something that’s, again, been rooted in the series’ established lore. What’s more, there’s a callback to Niles’ own singing aspirations, as he has a musical number that affirms this installment as a tribute to several affable parts of the show’s identity, reinforced through some strong continuity that helps make it unique to The Nanny. (Also, there’s a gimmicky centerpiece involving a silent film takeoff, but it adds to the story, and by Season Six, we’re not so saturated in these winking parodies that we resent them. Plus, this one stars Yetta and is hilarious.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Making Whoopi,” which I appreciate only for the gag of Niles and C.C. accidentally eating the aphrodisiacs meant for Fran and Maxwell (who are trying to conceive), “The Fran In The Mirror,” which has one interesting thread regarding Fran’s efforts to get Gracie in school — related to Fran’s insecurities being in Maxwell’s world — but it’s overshadowed by a lame A-story, “Ma’ternal Affairs,” which introduces Steve Lawrence as Fran’s father (who’s funnier when unseen), and “Maggie’s Wedding,” which uses Fran’s established love of Barbra Streisand to enliven a bland Big Event show. Also, I’ll take this space to cite “Oh, Say Can You Ski” and “California, Here We Come” for their stunt castings of Chris Elliott and Donna Douglas/Hal Linden, respectively.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The Nanny goes to…
Come back next week for more sitcom fun And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!