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by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Fran Is Just Fine

Fran Drescher is once again having a moment. And she should be: in this dark, uncertain moment, her brand of humor is exactly the flavor we need.

As one of the stars in the new NBC sitcom, Indebted, the 62-year-old comic actress is trading on the fame she gained during the run of The Nanny, which aired from 1993-1999. I started watching that show because of my daughter Kate, who chortled her way through the reruns that aired every weeknight just after dinner time.  

I’d curl up alongside her, at first more for her company than anything else but once ensconced, I found it more entertaining than I would have expected. This was largely due to Drescher, the svelte, raven-haired Jewish beauty whose luscious image was shattered every time she opened her mouth; she didn’t so much talk as honk. She also sashayed, flipped the ends of her cloud of dark curls, winked and despite her definitely less-than social status within the show’s hierarchy, managed, in each episode, to prevail. 

Kate was agog at Drescher’s clothes—the body-hugging red suit with the bottle-cap sized buttons and leopard lapels, the black bolero jacket adorned all over with Crayola-bright tassels, the riotously pink-green-brown plaid suit worn with an electric pink turtleneck—she thought they were great.  So did I, though I saw in them a kind of irony my daughter did not. Drescher’s clothes were not so much chic as they were an outer-borough Jewish girl’s idea of chic—they were always too short, too loud, too tight, too embellished and altogether too much, just like the woman who wore them. And as an outer-borough Jewish girl myself (Brooklyn, rather than Queens but the net result was the same: both locales lacked the storied sophistication of Manhattan) I could relate to her aspirations. In fact, as I watched the show, I saw in it a familiar paradigm, although Drescher managed to subvert and overturn its assumptions in a way that was both surprising and empowering to the image of Jewish women. 

For those not familiar with the set-up, here goes: Fran Fine works in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens; the owner is also her long term boyfriend. In one grand sweep, he dumps her for another girl and gives her job to his new flame. She is, according to the song’s catchy theme song, “out on her fanny.”  Next, we see her heading over the bridge in a taxi to the tony townhouse of Maxwell Sheffield, a widowed Broadway producer with three young children and a posh English accent. Fran is there to sell cosmetics but Sheffield—who is suitably tall, dark and handsome—needs a nanny for his brood.  Fran doesn’t seem to be the most likely candidate but he’s desperate and since she’s living with her parents, so is she—she views their living room with its plastic-covered sofa as one of the circles of hell—and by the episode’s end, she is ensconced in their townhouse, and, in short order their lives. 

So we have a Jewish woman from a lower social class dropped like a bowling ball into the lives of these upper crust, upper east siders.  And Mr. Sheffield is an Uber-WASP—he’s British, after all. And predictably, the show pokes fun at Fran’s foibles, her lack of education, manners, etc.  Except that she’s not bothered by her lacks; instead she turns them into virtues.  

Rather than cowering in the presence of her social superiors, she thumbs her pretty nose at them. Even better, she converts the Gentiles to embrace her world view. It turns out that her brand of Jewish warmth and humor, as well as her wide emotional range and flair for drama (also seen as Jewish qualities), are the source of her appeal. Her extended family is part of this appeal—some of the show’s funniest bits include her grandmother Yetta, a scrappy senior in an assisted living facility often seen frantically puffing on a cigarette between wise-cracks.   

This was a story that had particular resonance for me. I grew up in Brooklyn, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood amidst many Jews. We kids all went to the local public school; the Catholics in our ‘hood, Italian and Irish mostly, went to the parochial school. There was no particular animosity there but there wasn’t that much interaction either.  

So to move from this rather down market ambiance to Vassar College, where I enrolled in 1974, was a major culture shock. It was at Vassar that I encountered what felt like a tsunami of WASPs. I had never met so many of them before, the Megs and the Buffys, the Taffys and the Taylors. I envied, admired and was often intimidated by them, but not because they consciously tried to make me feel less-than. My discomfort seemed to hinge on the dawning knowledge that as much as I loved Vassar and found it a place of enormous intellectual and academic stimulation, I could also see that it was a place built on excluding people like me.  

That knowledge never left me, and it existed side by side with my affection for the place. And it stayed with me for the next forty years, eventually becoming central to my novel Not Our Kind, which tells the story of Eleanor Moskowitz, daughter of a milliner and Vassar graduate making her way in post-war New York City. Early on, Eleanor meets Patricia Bellamy, a Park Avenue matron and their lives become intertwined in ways neither of them ever expected. Eleanor’s entry into the world of the WASPs was unquestionably drawn from my own experience. 

But Fran’s story stands in radical opposition to that story. In episode after episode, she’s shown to be the one with the moxy, the smarts, the guts, and the heart. The kids come to love her and so does Maxwell Sheffield. She doesn’t apologize for who she is and she creates her place in the family rather than assumes it. While the rest of the clan appears fully dressed at breakfast, Fran saunters in a chenielle robe and fluffy pink slippers. She doesn’t see her déshabilléas a faux pas; rather their rigid, buttoned-up appearances—and concomitant attitudes—are shown to be lacking. 

The show struck a cultural chord. After its initial run (that ended with Fran and Maxwell getting married—natch!) it went on to syndication and adaptation throughout the world.  It was called Une Nanou d’Enfer—A Nanny From Hell—in France and La Tata in Italy. According to a recent profile of Drescher in New York Magazine, in 25 years, the show has never not been airing somewhere. 

And it was clearly a high point for Drescher, who was canny enough to understand her own strengths as a performer and to maximize them to the hilt.  That same New York Magazine piece describes how early on in her career, she tried to modify her voice; the effort sapped the soul out of her. “I was never going to have Meryl Streep’s career,” she realized. “I was going to have Fran Drescher’s career, and that’s what I did.”

In the last twenty-odd years, Drescher has had her share of hard knocks—two divorces, cancer, and a hysterectomy. But she hasn’t lost her ebullience or her spirit, and now she’s back, playing the part as the wife in a boomer couple who squandered their money, lost their house and they have to move in with her married son and his family. Indebted tries hard but even Drescher’s joie de vivre can’t get it off life support. It doesn’t matter though. The flashy (read: Jewish) girl from Flushing has bravely, boldly scaled the sitcom heights, and no one can drag her down.  

© 2011 Lilith Magazine