A Spoonful of Crap

Cape fear: The nannies collectively vow to act as stereotypically English as possible

You don't need to have seen Temptation Island or The Littlest Groom to know that Fox's reality show offerings are usually about as kid-friendly as nicotine lollies. While the other networks attempt to woo families with sanitized treacle, Fox has historically churned out belly-bumping sleaze at an admirable clip. Used to be if you turned on a reality show on Fox, you were guaranteed a glimpse of horny singles (Love Cruise), graphic invasive surgery (The Swan), or, at the very least, Paris Hilton (The Simple Life). Which is why Fox's latest hit reality series, Nanny 911, seems so out of place. It's like finding a diaper floating in your 10-person Jacuzzi.

In its premise, Nanny 911 is a near carbon copy of ABC's similarly popular Supernanny: Married couples with obnoxious children--and by "obnoxious" I mean hitting, spitting, near-feral urchins--call upon a British nanny to help repair their households and discipline their spawn. (Interesting demographic note: Most of the applicants seem to be red staters with a gruff, sexist dad, a fragile stay-at-home mom, and at least four kids. Who knew the "family values" crowd could be so inept at nesting? Pardon me while I point with a joint and laugh my lefty head off.)

Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the show is its heavy reliance on America's enduring affection for Mary Poppins. Check out this statement from the official Nanny 911 website: "This new, family-oriented, unscripted series follows an experienced Head Nanny and her team of 'specialist nannies,' who know that is takes more than a spoonful of sugar [italics mine] to get unruly tykes in line." I never imagined a cornball fantasy flick from 1964 would be taken so literally by the inept parents of today. What's next, a Bedknobs and Broomsticks reality series that launches incurable brats into space?

Anyway, since the nannies are British and therefore have mad skillz on the Poppins tip, little Billy Bob and Freedom Sue are always magically tamed by the end of the hour. Peace prevails and the grateful parents shower "Nanny Stella," "Nanny Deb," or "Nanny Yvonne" with heavily edited praise. (I'm a Deb girl myself: Her sleek chignon and tart severity have probably unearthed latent S&M fantasies in many casual viewers.) Of course, even the most gifted child-whisperer couldn't mend a family within days, but Fox would obviously like us to believe that the Brits heal all wounds. Hell, with the right nanny present, carousel horses can come to life and canter through magical meadows! It's a jolly holiday on Fox!

The whole thing seems like a disgustingly wholesome concept, right? Have no fear: Fox, bless their hearts, have managed to find a sleazy lining in this billowy cloud of a premise. A recent episode featuring the King family revealed that the brood's problems lay not with the unruly King children but with their bickering parents. Fox responded by creating a quick spinoff episode called Marriage 911, in which Chris and Laura King received counseling from (you guessed it) a British marriage counselor. "Mr. Marriage," a fey Clockwork Orange-type droogie in a porkpie hat was dispatched to the Kings' house to encourage them to stop insulting each other in front of the kids. Suddenly Fox's promise of "family-oriented" went straight out the window, as Chris and Laura called each other "asshole," "bitch," and other choice epithets with nary a courtesy bleep from the censors. There's the Fox we know and love!

Of course, by episode's end, Chris and Laura King were sharing a bottle of cheap champers at sunset, cooing over how foolish they were for accusing each other of being a bastard and a fat pig, respectively. Did "Mr. Marriage" really work some rare brand of English magic, or was his presence merely a convenient placebo for an ailing marriage? Do viewers even care?

Probably not. The cult surrounding Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and both nanny shows reveals that Band-Aid solutions to domestic issues get boffo ratings these days. Viewers crave the catharsis of a tidy conclusion, the reassurance that even two people who have spawned monsters--and despise each other--can find happiness under the wing of the right team of professionals.

In fact, it looks like Nanny 911 is taking a cue from Home Edition by targeting especially needy families in the future. This week's "very special episode" of Nanny features a woman and her quadriplegic husband who have adopted 32(!) special-needs children. Apparently it's not enough for TV families to struggle with routine issues; X-treme Misfortune (sponsored by Puffs) is now the norm on prime time.

People take this stuff very seriously, as evidenced by the official Nanny 911 message board on Fox's website, where posters discuss the Nannies as if they were rock stars and air grievances about their own families. Everyone expresses a profound need to be "fixed." When even Fox has jumped on the feel-good bandwagon, prime time has officially become a symbolic plea from Middle America: Save us from ourselves.

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