The oft-used meme, “I Watched It For Plot,” is an ironic acknowledgment that we as viewers often gravitate towards a feast for the eyes. Most people prefer to watch flashy productions and beautiful celebrities rather than “smart” content; they have the gift of avoiding convoluted intrigues which force the spectator to think. It is not an incrimination but a very real aspect of our media consumption. Even Netflix’s official social media accounts have leaning in the joke to promote shows like Squid game. “The Plot,” then, becomes a teasing reference to its appealing cast instead of the show’s unsubtle statement about social class in South Korea.
Likewise, my interest in The nanny, a CBS sitcom that aired from 1993 to 1999, stemmed from its shallow, unplotable elements – at least that’s what I thought. I started airing the show not for its comedic charm, but for the extravagant and colorful designer costumes worn by its lead character, Fran Fine, the titular nanny (played by Fran Drescher).
This does not mean The nanny is any style without substance. Instead, Fran’s forward-thinking flair was the gateway to my greater appreciation of the series and its tendency to overdo it through its comedy and aesthetic. The nanny, both the show and the character, excelled at doing the most endearingly: Yiddish references dot Fran’s vocabulary; she manages to be brash and honest with self-mockery, gentle but not cloying; and her clothes are ridiculously ostentatious for the nanny at home.
Fran’s costumes, designed by stylist Brenda Cooper (who won an Emmy for her work), were the stylistic vehicle to set her lively character apart from the rest of the well-rounded cast. The nannyThe catchy, show-worthy theme song even prepares audiences for this accolade. Fran is described as “the lady in red when everyone wears tans”.
To recap, The nanny follows Fran Fine, a Jewish lady from Flushing, Queens, who, after losing her job at a bridal shop, accidentally lands a nanny job for the high society, WASP-y Sheffield family. His exaggerated persona (and nasal intonation) was initially confusing to Maxwell, the widowed single father of the family, but became endearing when he realized how much his three children had accepted Fran’s antics. She moves in with the Sheffields and their sarcastic butler Niles, and playfully takes on Maxwell’s clingy and haughty business partner CC Babcock.
From the start of the series to the finale of the sixth season, Fran remains his centrifugal force; her sparkling charm breathed fresh air into the sweltering Sheffields life, which viewers individually adore. But Drescher, the creator of the series, and Cooper weren’t so sure. The nanny would have established such a beloved and lasting legacy without Fran’s clothes. “Can you imagine if I would dress up this show and dress Fran like a regular everyday nanny?” Cooper told HuffPost in 2018. “We wouldn’t be having a conversation right now.”
Cooper, until her departure after season four, gave Drescher free rein to dress Fran Fine as she wanted. She designed Fran’s costumes to be an extension of her personality while also serving as a memorable timestamp for the show’s progress and class commentary. Fran wore a red heart-shaped Moschino handbag on a (failed) date with a season one gangster and wore a Moschino piano dress in a season four episode featuring a concert pianist budding who then lost all desire to play the instrument.
Yet her character is a “shopaholic with a mountain of credit card debt,” Rachel Syme observed in The New Yorker, “a clothes dryer that the viewer says cares more about materialistic leanings than about longevity. ‘timeless art’. Even after Fran’s induction into the Sheffield clan, his style remains singular, insensitive to the social expectations of the Upper East Side.
In a 2020 interview with Vogue, Drescher described Fran’s style as “sexy, but definitely not trashy” and shared some of Cooper’s costume decisions. The character wore a lot of Moschino, as the clothes had pizzazz and humor, according to Drescher. And in the scenes Fran shared with CC, the goal was to portray the two women as “contrasting in every way, as people and in the way they dress.” By today’s’ 90s obsessed standards, Fran’s looks are decidedly modern. and timeless.
Still, The nanny never reached the level of widespread popularity and cultural cachet accorded to other shows of the 90s, such as Friends Where Sex and the city. Women like Rachel Green and Carrie Bradshaw have remained style hot spots for a generation of ’90s and 2000s kids born during their shows’ years of airing. The nanny, on the other hand, has been hailed and referenced by a much smaller audience (including Cardi B) in the decades since her demise. Various women’s and fashion publications have devoted coverage to Fran’s unique sensibility to fashion in recent years, nearly two decades after the runway ended (and before The nanny was relaunched via the streaming service). This interest was in part driven by the Instagram account @whatfranwore, which identifies Fran’s iconic wardrobe with more than 350,000 followers. The series’ arrival on HBO Max in April 2021, however, likely introduced the show to more viewers.
It’s also a step towards commemorating its cultural status as a ’90s sitcom. To viewers in 2021, the show’s setup – its punchlines and the way it was filmed – might feel a bit dated. . Not so much that the humor was out of date, but that it was just from another era.
Some seasons of The nanny were recorded in front of a live audience, which has become “a classy signifier of comedy itself,” according to NPR’s Linda Holmes on Pop Culture Happy Hour, “which sort of [a live audience laughing is] a less sophisticated or old-fashioned or larger comedy. Still, the show flaunted a list of enviable celebrity cameos during its airing, starring Elton John, Celine Dion, Elizabeth Taylor, Patti LaBelle and, of course, Donald Trump.
The nanny “Find jokes everywhere, sometimes three or four per line, and connect them through episodes and storylines,” Hilarie Ashton wrote for The New York Times. Its slapstick, self-aware humor is refreshing and self-explanatory for a decades-old show, and it generally comes across as a ’90s sitcom to air. The nannyThe embrace of excess, however, had the potential to be utterly liberating and ahead of its time, but the show’s writers (and possibly Drescher herself) drew the grease line. Instead, oversized bodies have to be feared or mocked, and at one point in the series, Drescher dons a big costume. Despite this, Drescher’s charisma and comedic talent cement Fran Fine’s place in television canon, as a leader who manages to overturn and reinforce stereotypes – about women, Jewishness, and class. The nanny is an interesting watch for the cast’s physical humor, charm, and glaring antics. But if you’re not convinced by these plot asides, consider only looking at it for clothes.
The nanny is streaming on HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing archives.