Let’s begin with my terrible confession: For decades, I’ve been wrong about The Nanny. (And also about Steve Urkel, but we’ll get to him later.)
Long, long ago, when The Nanny was originally on the air, I considered myself more of a Frasier gay than a Nanny gay; I assumed that Fran Drescher’s show was all crass sex jokes, annoying child actors, and wall-to-wall heterosexuality.
But oh. Oh dear. I was so wrong. Terribly, horribly, homosexually wrong. At the urging of some friends, I’ve been giving the show a second chance, now that it’s available in crystal-clear fidelity via HBO. And not only is it honest-to-goodness very very funny, it is surprisingly queer. And not just because it’s basically The Sound of Music meets Mame on Broadway! It also has a startling approach to gay characters that really caught my eye.
The ‘90s — particularly the early-to-mid section — was a time for gay characters on sitcoms to be a crisis or awkward or a challenge. Whether it’s Friends, or The Simpsons, or Murphy Brown, or Designing Women, queer sitcom episodes in the ‘90s tend to focus on queer characters as a source of trouble. Don’t get me wrong, these are some great episodes of television (usually), but they always present the gay guest as the problem of the week, a difficulty that needs to be resolved.
Not so on The Nanny, though. Take a look at Season 2, Episode 19, “A Fine Friendship.” In that one, Fran meets another nanny, a handsome man named Kurt who is decked out in head-to-toe denim who knows more about musical theater than is seemly for any heterosexual. She determines that he’s gay, and that’s … just fine. No big deal. No crisis. No “whadda we do about this” scene, no Very Special Episode music that leads into the commercial with the characters staring meaningfully just off-camera at the script supervisor.
It’s easy to take that for granted today, but in the mid-90s, Fran’s easy-going acceptance of a gay colleague is a big deal. The show even manages a neat flip of the “homosexual as problem” trope at the end of Act I, when it’s revealed that Kurt is actually straight. Fran freaks out — and for once, the gay episode twist is not that there’s an unexpected homosexual in the main characters’ lives, but that there’s an unexpected heterosexual.
Ultimately, Fran decides that she likes Kurt better as a friend (though apparently not much better; he never comes back, at least not on this show).
But that’s far from the only gay storyline on The Nanny; there’s another episode where Fran is momentarily mistaken for a lesbian, and she takes it completely in stride. (A year earlier, Friends had an episode in which Chandler freaks out about being mistaken for gay; a year later, Frasier would have a similar freakout.)
My favorite of The Nanny’s queer twists comes in the episode "Val’s Apartment." That one features a cameo by the actor who played Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley, 17 years earlier, but The Nanny retcons his character to make him and Lenny into gay lovers. It's an amazing queer flex, taking iconic characters from a totally different show and making them gay.
In real life, Fran Drescher’s been a steadfast ally — she’s supported various causes, from Spirit Day to marriage equality — and last year she starred in Lifetime’s first holiday movie to center a same-sex couple. It’s incredible that it took until 2020 (2020!!!) for Lifetime to make their first gay Christmas movie. And even more incredible that Drescher was just casually including queer characters in her show long long before it was easy to do so.