The ‘90s was a pretty great decade in terms of pop culture. Along with iconic fashion moments, it gave us catchy music, fun anime, and fascinating children’s books. But aside from all this, the decade also gave us great sitcoms.
While some have achieved mainstream success and popularity (hello, Friends and Seinfeld), there were others that were just as — if not even more — wonderful, but just didn’t make it on the radar of as many viewers. Perhaps the perfect example of this is The Nanny, one of the most underrated sitcoms of the decade.
In fact, it’s mildly surprising (and, personally, criminally offensive) that this show doesn’t get more mentions today given the level of nostalgia for the last decade of the 20th century.
The good news is, all six seasons of The Nanny’s textbook ‘90s sit-com were made available to stream on HBO Max earlier this year, which is a gift to both new and old fans. And at the center of this gift — as well as the show itself — is Fran Drescher.
Aside from starring in the titular role, she also created and produced the show with then-husband Peter Marc Jacobson. Like Fran the Nanny, Fran the actress (and writer, activist, and trade union leader) is a native of Flushing, Queens, and is the daughter of a woman named Sylvia and the granddaughter of a woman named Yetta. And just like her character, she even went to cosmetology school and has killer style.
But in this version of a Cinderella story, Fran Fine, a cosmetic saleslady down on her luck, finds herself at the house of a rich, widowed, and very British Broadway producer named Maxwell Sheffield. He ends up hiring her as the nanny for his three children, and the rest of the show is history.
As simple as the plot is, it doesn’t take away from the joy that comes with watching Drescher’s character navigate life in the Sheffield household.
This, along with Drescher’s unique characteristics and the show’s self-indulgent camp, made it a criminally underrated gem that certainly deserved a bigger fan base.
Much of the show also explores Fran Fine’s love life, especially as she and Mr. Sheffield tiptoe around their growing feelings for one another. But it also explores other themes, like aging, sexism, and even classism.
In an episode that speaks to today’s workers, for example, Fran flat-out refuses to cross a picket line. Her mother had a few rules, Fran had explained to an annoyed Mr. Sheffield. “Never make contact with a public toilet, and never, ever, ever cross a picket line!”
But the most important theme of all was family, and it was this that kept audiences coming back for more.
Overall, The Nanny was a show that consistently aimed to be better and win over the devotion of its audience. And if you’re looking for some episodes to rewatch on a lazy evening, here are some of the best episodes of this underrated sitcom you’re sure to enjoy.
Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)
Most pilot episodes of sitcoms aren’t very good. They’re usually over- or under-produced with strange expositions and character introductions from misguided or inexperienced studio suggestions.
The Nanny would’ve almost ended up that way if it weren’t for an approach that worked: a simple and candidly funny introduction that would provided the foundation for the rest of the show.
The pilot episode can essentially be summed up by the entire theme song itself: how a girl from Flushing, Queens was dumped, went door-to-door to sell makeup, and ended up getting hired as the nanny.
What’s great about the pilot is it does what it’s supposed to without packing too much or underwhelming the audience. It introduces us to the main premise and the nine main characters quite seamlessly. There are also a few good jokes thrown in to introduce the audience to The Nanny’s brand of humor, and they land quite well, even today.
My Fair Nanny (Season 1, Episode 3)
Early on, The Nanny proves that it’s a show that isn’t afraid to put up a good shtick.
In the third episode of season one, the show grabs inspiration from “My Fair Lady.” It’s tweaked ever so slightly and follows Fran as she prepares to host Maggie’s debutante luncheon.
While Fran is determined to host the hottest shindig that the guests have ever seen, she suddenly starts to second-guess how well she might fit in with the other high-society women who are expected to attend.
Right on cue, Maxwell and Niles give her a little training session a day before the party. The result is a Fran that is near unrecognizable: She emerges at the party with slicked-back hair and, shockingly, without her trademark nasal voice and accent.
(The absence of her unique sound is so funny, in fact, that a later episode featuring her eating wasabi for the first time is one of Drescher’s favorites.)
Drescher’s vocal manipulation is impressive, as is what Daniel Davis, who plays Miles, can do with his Arkansas-turned-British accent on the show. This particular shtick proves to be one of the funniest and most memorable episodes, and it might have you saying, “How now brown cow?” more than once.
What the Butler Sang (Season 2, Episode 20)
In season two, Fran discovers that Niles actually has a beautiful singing voice.
As a supportive friend, she then persuades him to audition for one of Mr. Sheffield’s plays. Meanwhile, her sister Nadine stands in for Niles’ cooking duties but starts to annoy Fran as she hits on Mr. Sheffield. Fran ends up calling Nadine’s husband, which leads to a big argument that nearly jeopardizes Niles’ audition, which, fortunately, ends up being a success among the investors.
This particular episode also features some of C.C. Babcock’s most biting zingers. One of the more effective ways the showrunners managed to highlight Fran is to make C.C. her foil as a composed, subdued, and heavily medicated opposite.
Pen Pal (Season 3, Episode 1)
The Nanny takes much of its inspiration from other films, and this episode is pretty much straight out of an Ernest Lubitsch creation, The Shop Around the Corner.
Here, Fran is positively excited about meeting her long-time pen pal Lenny. However, she is also worried because she exaggerated her life in their letters and is afraid of disappointing him. This also opens the season where we start getting more glimpses of how Maxwell feels about Fran.
Moreover, “Pen Pal” features a subplot that is quite worthy of its own episode. As Fran’s adventures with Lenny are unfolding, C.C. and Niles end up engaging in a sexual charade that remains as funny today as it was when the episode first aired.
The Facts of Lice (Season 4, Episode 18)
The Nanny often features wild goose chases as part of its comedic slapstick, and “The Facts of Lice” episode shows one of them.
Here, Niles starts to become forlorn about his life as a butler. Fran observes how strangely he’s acting and decides to investigate. One day as he is cleaning, Niles drops a piece of paper that contains a list of items that shocks Fran, who reads it out loud for the rest of us: “secure alibi, cut phone line, put on gloves, tape mouth…” You get the gist.
Just like any good sitcom setup, this leads her to a nervous investigation and unlikely discoveries — all on a dark and stormy night.
Tattoo (Season 4, Episode 9)
While this show is meant to be family-friendly, there are quite a few adult themes that made their way into the script.
In this episode, Fran is trying to convince Maggie not to get a tattoo. However, Val, Fran’s best friend, lets slip in front of everybody that Fran herself has a tattoo that she got while they were just teenagers. This is news to Fran’s mother, Sylvia, who is adamant that Fran has it lasered off for her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery when she dies.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sheffield is beside himself with curiosity, trying to figure out just where Fran’s tattoo is.
First Date (Season 5, Episode 2)
A huge part of what makes the show so appealing is the dynamic between Maxwell and Fran. A constant game of will they or won’t they, it becomes more fun and exciting with each new episode.
In “First Date,” Maxwell finally decides to take Fran out on a real date after five years of knowing her. He invites her to the premiere of Elton John’s new movie, but as it turns out, Ms. Fine has already made a bad impression on the celebrity. To try and remedy the situation and avoid getting Mr. Sheffield in trouble, Fran pretends to be her Grandma Yetta, and hilarity ensues.
Drescher showcases her acting chops here as she seamlessly pulls off Ann Morgan Guilbert’s performance as Grandma Yetta. Apart from Elton John, Ray Charles also makes a guest appearance as Yetta’s boyfriend, Sammy.
The Engagement (Season 5, Episode 15)
In this episode, Maxwell finally tells Fran that he loves her — without taking it back!
Understandably, Fran is thrilled to tell all, and everybody is happy about this new development, except maybe C.C. While congratulations are being given, Maxwell shows Niles the engagement ring he bought to propose to Fran that same evening. However, as fans of the show know all too well, Niles is incapable of keeping a secret.
Soon, the dominos begin to fall: Fran tells Sylvia, who then tells everyone else. Everyone knows about the Super Secret Proposal Plan at the Rainbow Room, but things still work out in a moment Fran, her mother, and fans have all been waiting for — though not quite in the way Maxwell had imagined it.
Maggie’s Wedding (Season 6, Episode 21)
As the show progresses, the audience gets the opportunity to see the Sheffield children grow, witnessing milestones along the way.
In this episode, Maggie’s fiancé gets a modeling job in Japan, but not before he proposes to her. Maxwell, as any father would, has a difficult time accepting that his first little girl has finally grown into a young woman. There’s also some hilarity about Fran maybe finally getting to meet her idol Barbara Streisand, which results in one of the most classic scenes in the show.
In the end, Maggie — the shy young girl we first meet in the Pilot — ends up happily marrying Michael.
What’s your favorite episode of The Nanny?