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.
You’ll often hear that The Nanny suffers a huge decline in quality when it pairs its leads. I disagree. Yes, the later years are bad — but not because its leads are paired. I think these later years are bad because their stories aren’t about the characters or the premise, and to that point, I believe the series takes its biggest hit here in Four, following a cliffhanger where Mr. Sheffield confessed his love to Fran and it looked as if the two would finally romance, validating the past few years’ all-consuming focus. For after teasing this change, the series actually proves unwilling to evolve its status quo, and so despite having no good excuse to keep these two lovebirds apart, Four refuses to follow the plot’s natural course. This isn’t noble; it’s devastating, for as we often saw with another blue-balling rom-com, Friends, such a ham-fisted denial of what’s been dramatically earned destroys the credibility of the characters, particularly Mr. Sheffield, as his “choice” to “retract” his admission makes no sense, harming our faith in the continuity of his depiction and the series’ overall integrity. What’s more, this strained logic halts investment, ensuring that all sexual tension goes limp. This means Four’s entries focused on the couple are not as fun as those prior (see: an arc with a therapist intended to justify the delay — only a half-success), while other distractions are sought to episodically compensate. This is tricky, for when scripts veer away from the pair, they’re also veering away from the premise, as this aspect of its concept had come to dominate, and as Four discovers that it’s no longer adept at narratively addressing other parts — like the thought of Fran being a fish-out-of-water and/or a proxy mom — there’s nothing left. Those wells have since run dry, and the kids’ initial personas have evaporated with them. Now, this series is left to disintegrate into BAD sitcommery, indulging all kinds of terrible casting gimmicks and gaudy idea-led notions that not only have little to do with the “situation,” but also continue to undermine the show’s aesthetic realism — operating with random but winking dream-like parodies, and stories that feel like long-form sketches, as big characters such as Fran and Sylvia are plopped into circumstances they don’t motivate. It’s, again, bad, and I’m afraid this is the state where The Nanny will remain for the rest of its run, triggered NOT by the pairing of its leads, but their denied pairing when earned.
01) Episode 80: “Freida Needa Man” (Aired: 10/16/96)
Fran is caught in a compromising position with Aunt Freida’s boyfriend.
Written by Frank Lombardi | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
Lainie Kazan returns as Aunt Freida in this installment that’s not nearly as strong as her debut, offering a formulaic sitcom plot where Fran is caught in a compromising position with a man she’s just trying to teach to dance. Truthfully, there’s nothing narratively here that I can genuinely recommend — and the whole wink of casting Donald O’Connor as Freida’s beau, using the dancing angle as a metatheatrical gag, does very little except allow me to point out the state of this show’s tacky comic sensibilities in Four. However, Fran’s family is still amusing — not as much as before, for now they’re more cartoony and stuck inside plots that emphasize their lack of dimension, but enough to earn this entry a spot above other, less enjoyable Honorable Mentions. (George Furth guests, and Marilyn Cooper is back as Nettie.)
02) Episode 81: “Me And Mrs. Joan” (Aired: 10/30/96)
The Sheffields are visited by Maxwell’s father and his new wife.
Written by Peter Marc Jacobson | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
We finally meet Mr. Sheffield’s father — played by Robert Vaughn — in this episode, which also boasts a guest appearance by Joan Collins, as said father’s former secretary, and the woman for whom he left Maxwell’s mother many years ago. With some dramatic history filled in for the Sheffields, there’s some rare character-based value here as well, and as these relationships are mostly used to comment upon the current dynamic between Fran and Maxwell, there’s also a sincere attempt to make this a premise-connected narrative. Of course, it’s not up to previous years’ efforts, but it’s a smart sample by the standards of Season Four, with a jokey script that indeed features some affable moments for both the central twosome and the various family members who personify their evident differences. An MVE contender.
03) Episode 84: “Tattoo” (Aired: 11/20/96)
Mr. Sheffield is intrigued to learn that Fran has a tattoo.
Written by Caryn Lucas | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
What I like best about this offering is that it’s probably the segment here in Four that comes closest to recreating the palpable sexual tension between its two leads after the premiere’s total destruction of their arc’s ongoing credibility. And this is somewhat surprising — because this arises out of a very silly, trivial story where Mr. Sheffield learns that Fran has a tattoo and is busy fantasizing about where it is on her body. But it’s enough to do the trick, and with additional support from Sylvia’s comedic yet buyable insistence that Fran must remove her tattoo if she wants to be buried with the rest of the family, this idea works for the characters… That said, this offering’s excuse for dashing its own resurrected momentum is especially lame, and the ping pong climax cannot distract from that fact. (Sally Kirkland and John Astin guest.)
04) Episode 85: “The Car Show” (Aired: 12/11/96)
Mr. Sheffield tries to teach Fran to drive a stick shift.
Written by Robbie Schwartz | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
Although this installment seems predicated mostly on the moldy sitcom idea of a husband teaching his wife how to drive a car — updated now for a series where the central couple isn’t even married (or romantically involved), and the car in question is specifically a stick shift — I appreciate that, for however labored the setup, the episode’s climax uses a known aspect of Fran’s characterization to inspire a lot of its comedy and increase the dramatic stakes. That is, her love of Barbra Streisand is a well-established affinity, and more than just a running gag, it also proves itself a viable engine for story here in this excursion, which takes a lame foundation and dresses it up with elements that make it unique to The Nanny. (Roslyn Kind appears.)
05) Episode 87: “Danny’s Dead And Who’s Got The Will?” (Aired: 01/08/97)
Fran attends the funeral for her ex-fiancé and then worries about her life after Mr. Sheffield.
Written by Jayne Hamil | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
As with most of the segments I’m highlighting here in Four, there are both good things and bad things about this offering. The “bad” is a “schmuck bait” second act where Fran temporarily leaves her job with the Sheffields — it’s not a believable development because we know the series is committed to retaining its status quo at all costs, even at its own characters’ expense. Meanwhile, the “good” is a narrative inspired by some of Fran’s premised history — as the fiancé who dumped her in the pilot has died, and she attends his funeral. This encourages a funny bit with Fran, Val, and his coffin, and introduces Pamela Anderson as the much-mentioned Heather Biblow. So, by exploiting established details of Fran’s “situation,” I can say that this is another outing unique to The Nanny. (Myra Carter also guests.)
06) Episode 88: “Kissing Cousins” (Aired: 01/15/97)
Fran meets a Jewish doctor and begins seeing a therapist.
Written by Caryn Lucas | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
Jon Stewart guest stars in this episode as a nice Jewish doctor whom Fran begins to date… until she learns that he’s actually her cousin. That’s a gaudy comic idea that, frankly, forms the bulk of this entry’s appeal. And considering that it’s not motivated by choices the leads make, it’s not something I love. However, I highlight this one because it introduces Spalding Gray as Dr. Miller, the therapist whom Fran starts seeing in the latter half of Season Four — a device meant to justify why the series is still delaying its central couple’s coupling. Obviously, he’s not effective at explaining the impossible, but he does allow the show to address an aspect of its premise without further mitigating the tension between the two leads, and there are enough samples this year where his scenes are both comedically memorable and dramatically relevant to the premised relationship that I count his presence as more beneficial than not. (Oh, but I hate the ostentatious Dynasty sketch — I’m featuring “Kissing Cousins” here IN SPITE of it!)
07) Episode 89: “The Fifth Wheel” (Aired: 01/29/97)
Fran feels left out when both C.C. and Val get boyfriends.
Written by Frank Lombardi | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
Following her doctor’s insistence in the previous outing that Fran break her obsession with trying to get married, this installment has fun positioning that notion as a source of conflict, as both Val and C.C. find themselves in relationships, leaving Fran excluded as the eponymous “fifth wheel.” This is not a hilarious half hour, but it’s a solid one — and it mostly works for how it reveals the season’s attempt to use Dr. Miller to prolong Fran and Mr. Sheffield’s coupling, not quite succeeding at making it believable, but at least creating narrative fodder that’s affiliated with the “situation,” and not nearly as contemptible as so much of Season Four’s unhighlighted alternatives. (Gordon Thomson and Joel Murray guest.)
08) Episode 90: “The Nose Knows” (Aired: 02/05/97)
After an insightful session with her new therapist, Fran sees the man picking his nose.
Teleplay by Rick Shaw | Story by Suzanne Gangursky | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
The best of the Dr. Miller shows, this offering speaks directly to the series’ premise, as the doc points out to Fran that she views Mr. Sheffield as a husband, even though he isn’t — a notion that we’ve long been discussing, for the whole conceit of The Nanny is that she is both a proxy wife to him and a proxy mother to his kids, with comedy and drama coming from her encroaching closeness and the fact that she is only a proxy (and a “proxy”-out-of-water, at that). By stating everything so succinctly, this script reveals a self-awareness that, I admit, I didn’t think the series had anymore. If only this segment fully maximized that awareness… but alas, true to the year’s sensibilities, it pivots in its second half to a Seinfeld-ian comic idea where Fran loses faith in her shrink after she catches him picking his nose. Again, it’s a funny prospect… but it’s not motivated by the leads’ choices, and it squanders any foundation for emotional growth that the aforementioned insight could have provided. Fortunately, there’s more positive character exploration with the Niles and C.C. subplot, which works because it plays against expectations, requiring that we first have expectations (based on their well-defined depictions)… Thus, with ideas that celebrate the series and its characters, and ideas that don’t but are at least reflective of the season, I have decided to select “The Nose Knows” as my pick for this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode) — nothing here is perfect, but this is the fairest encapsulation of Four.
09) Episode 91: “The Bank Robbery” (Aired: 02/12/97)
Fran befriends the man who is holding her and Sylvia hostage at the bank.
Written by Jayne Hamil | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
One of the year’s more popular episodes, this outing is this list’s primary example of The Nanny divorcing itself from its “situation” in story and instead taking on qualities of a sketch comedy, as it merely drops Fran and Sylvia inside a routine “bank robbery” scene, where they’re held up by the meek Peter Scolari (Newhart). There are a lot of laughs seeing these two outrageous Fine women put in this predicament — and the script has fun purposely downplaying any sense of genuine threat to their safety — but this is the kind of plot that could occur on ANY sitcom, and in the process of downplaying its jeopardy, the cavalier attitude displayed by Fran and Sylvia only exacerbates our fears of their growing lack of believability, as this show continues to push the bounds of its aesthetic realism by making them more and more cartoonish, while the “rules” of its world grow less rigid. Again, none of this is preferred — it’s not good situation comedy if the elements of the situation, its characters, are not inspiring both the hahas AND the weekly plots — but this one is exceptionally amusing, and I’m using its placement here to address what is otherwise an unfortunate, unideal trend.
10) Episode 101: “Fran’s Gotta Have It” (Aired: 05/21/97)
Fran follows Mr. Sheffield to London hoping to recreate their magical Paris trip.
Written by Diane Wilk | Directed by Dorothy Lyman
The Season Four finale hopes to recreate the peak represented by Three’s closer, but I’m not Charlie Brown, and when “Lucy” lifted the football away at the top of this year, my trust in anything related to the show’s understanding of its characters and how their premised relational dynamic should be channeled through story has disintegrated — which all goes to say that this installment is not as exciting, even though it’s equally mediocre and gimmicky, with on-location centerpieces and terrible stunt casting (this time, Céline Dion). And yet… the second half of this script uses Niles’ heart attack to finally(?) bring its central couple together, and although the buildup has been significantly blunted, we’re still eager for genuine narrative movement, which means not only is this episode memorable, it’s enjoyable too — for we’re at last getting a beat that should have theoretically happened in the previous premiere. Better late than never? Perhaps. But it’s up to next season not to drop the ball… and my faith is in short supply…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Bird’s Nest,” which has one of the funniest Niles and C.C. subplots of the entire series and was almost highlighted above for that alone (despite mediocrity in its A-story), and, against my better judgment, “The Facts Of Lice,” a well-liked but dreadful “sketch-like” show where we’re asked to believe that Fran, with scant evidence, could falsely assume that her friend, colleague, and housemate Niles is planning a murder — an emotional leap that is so harmful to our conception of this show and these characters that its big laughs are no salve. Meanwhile, I’ll also cite two entries with outlandish, clichéd sitcom ideas that aren’t motivated by character but at least try to call upon aspects of Fran’s characterization for support — “Samson, He Denied Her” and “Fran’s Roots” — along with “The Tart With Heart,” the season premiere that is saddled with a forced denial of narrative momentum, yet also boasts a memorable guest appearance by Jason Alexander, and “An Affair To Dismember,” where Fran dates Mr. Sheffield’s brother but the show fails to use this “schmuck bait” for anything of dramatic relevance (well, not yet anyway…)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Nanny goes to…
“The Nose Knows”
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!