Why ‘The Nanny’ is the perfect nostalgic binge-watch of 2021

Fran Drescher in The Nanny.
(Image credit: HBO Max)

The Nanny is now available to stream on HBO Max

The dominance of streaming has led to a resurgence in popularity for a slew of films and TV series. Gen Z latched onto Netflix marathons of Friends and The Office in a major way, bringing about a new era of interest in both sitcoms long after they had stopped airing new episodes. As a result, the former is receiving a reunion special on HBO Max and the latter has spawned fan podcasts, petitions for revival, and a Billie Eilish song that sampled the series. Nielsen ratings showed that, despite the billions of dollars being spent on creating dazzling new content for these services, viewers mostly just wanted to watch what they were familiar with. According to Nielsen's first-ever yearly streaming show rankings, the most-watched shows of 2020 were things like The Office, Grey's Anatomy, and Criminal Minds. Netflix’s original series Ozark accounted for around 508 million hours of viewing time, but that was nothing compared to the gargantuan 952 million hours pulled in by The Office on the same platform. Netflix will be hoping to replicate that success with its exclusive streaming rights to Seinfeld, which premieres on the service later this year. Meanwhile, other streamers of note are banking big on nostalgic content, and this month, HBO Max dropped an unexpected motherlode on viewers’ laps.

Starting on April 1, audiences could binge-watch every single episode of the beloved '90s sitcom The Nanny on Warner Bros' streamer, HBO Max. Created by and starring Fran Drescher, the series centers on the charismatic Fran Fine, a street-smart Jewish American girl who finds herself working as the nanny for a trio of well-to-do English kids living in a lavish home alongside their father, the semi-successful Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (all of this is explained in the very catchy theme tune.) Add to the equation a sardonic butler named Niles, Mr. Sheffield's business partner and frequent rival of Fran, C.C. Babcock, and Fran's frequently nosey family, and delightful chaos ensues.

While the series was a flop in its first season, it soon gained a major audience both across America and internationally. Some critics found The Nanny too dated, an obvious throwback to TV comedy of the '50s and '60s rather than the acerbic or eagerly chic shows making their mark in the '90s. but the magic of the show is in that simplicity, its evident influences of shows like I Love Lucy and Bewitched that prized a familiar set-up with a slew of one-liners, expertly executed pratfalls, and to-die-for chemistry.

Befitting a show created by its leading lady, The Nanny is a well-manicured star vehicle for Fran Drescher. With one failed sitcom under her belt as well as a steady stream of supporting performances in things like This is Spinal Tap and UHF, Drescher's distinctive voice and vintage delivery made her hard to cast. She was deemed to be "too much" by many, a deliberately full-on performer with no desire to quash the very things that made her unique. She had even been told by acting teachers and casting directors to change her voice to something more "palatable" or downplay her Jewishness. The Nanny, thankfully, lets Fran be Fran. She throws herself into physical scenes with ease and plays around with her distinctive theatricality. Somehow, she manages to be the everywoman as well as a wholly unique figure, and all without stomping down the aspects of her persona that she was told middle America would hate. While she’s often the butt of the joke, feeling out of place amid the hoity-toity lives of the Sheffields, the joke is never punching down at her. You’re not laughing at Fran but with her, and it’s one of the reasons the show remains so heartily entertaining.

Of course, the big hook of the series was the will-they-won’t-they romance between Fran and Mr. Sheffield. If The Nanny was a homage to I Love Lucy then this love story was their take on a Rock Hudson and Doris Day rom-com. It's a classic pop culture romance set-up: the stylish American girl meets the somewhat uptight and sophisticated Brit, opposites attract and sparks fly. Drescher and Charles Shaugnessy's chemistry was a fine fit for the formula and the narrative, paying off in a more satisfying manner than many an overdrawn sitcom romance (Ross and Rachel, I'm looking at you.) Their sweet banter was balanced well with the caustic wit of Niles and C.C., whose endless sniping provided some of the show's most hilarious moments ("Maxwell, I want a man!" "The last one deflated when she nibbled at his ear.")

At a time when ‘90s fashion is back on the runway and a whole new generation of women want the Rachel haircut, Drescher’s astoundingly vibrant Nanny wardrobe is ripe for rediscovery. Her multicolored flair for runway glamor and teeny skirts made her a unique figure on American TV, but that stylistic audaciousness paid off. Today, there are plenty of blogs and social media accounts dedicated to documenting Fran Fine's clothing and celebrating her refusal to fit in, in more ways than one.

Revisiting the show, what stands out about The Nanny is how unabashedly bonkers it allowed itself to be. Ray Charles was a frequent guest host. In one episode, Fran meets the character that Drescher played in This is Spinal Tap, while in another, she meets THE Fran Drescher. Childhood versions of the main characters turn up on more than one occasion. Fran straight-up kills a man in another! There's always been a malleable quality to The Nanny when it came to the fourth wall, one that feels somewhat ahead of its time for network sitcoms. Even though the show is happily on rails when it comes to its overriding arcs, these moments of the unexpected keep the audience on their toes.

This is a sitcom you could set your watch to. It has little interest in reinventing the wheel, even as it goes off-road into the surreal, because the formula works and can be relied upon to entertain in 22-minute increments. That feels like an unappreciated concept these days, mostly because the sitcom became so overtly trite and predictable thanks to decades of the same old thing. In comparison to modern comedies like BoJack Horseman, The Good Place, and Schitt's Creek, The Nanny is clearly from another time. But nostalgia is appealing for a reason, and The Nanny is veritable '90s kid catnip that's hard to resist. It's pure comfort food that feels like a good strong hug from your lively best friend, which I'm sure is what Drescher was going for on some level. And couldn't we all use a bit of that right now?

Kayleigh Donaldson

Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.