Supernanny gives proof to the cliché that parents wish their kids came with instructions. Each week, British nanny Jo Frost arrives on the doorstep of a hapless household for a week and teaches the parents what to do. She observes the family, identifies problems, implements solutions, and then sets the adults loose to practice what she’s preaching. After watching footage of them on their own for a couple of days, she comes back to reinforce her teachings. And the results are astounding. No more kiddie tantrums. Better family communication. Acres of relaxation. Part babysitter, part adult life coach, Frost turns her charges around. Bibbity bobbety boo.
For the soccer mom set, Supernanny offers a shock of recognition. No, parents often don’t know what they’re doing. Wouldn’t it be easier if someone told you how to do it? Dr. Spock is old school. Parenting books leave too much to the imagination. Reality TV is perfect. You can watch some other Joe Schmo go through the paces, making mistakes and suffering debilitating stress. Then, you get to see how a professional does it. It’s like a cooking show: write down the recipe and perform your own domestic miracle. Plus, the show offers the standard reality TV voyeuristic thrill of watching other people’s problems: someone else has it worse than you do. Isn’t that reassuring?
Frost makes for compelling viewing because she’s clear and programmatic. When the first version of the show premiered in the UK in the summer of 2004, “Naughty step!” and “Your behavior is very naughty!” became popular catchphrases. These sayings demonstrate how she instructs parents to communicate at the child’s level (use understandable concepts, and bend down to speak to them at their height). She reveals how to instill an understanding of consequence and respect. She provides them with mini-pedagogies, like variations on “time out,” and frankly, the “naughty step” proves a remarkably effective and flexible technique, great in a pinch. The clarity and stupendous results make the show quite satisfying. No more screaming kids in the end.
The problem is, the trajectory is always the same: at the beginning of each episode, the homes are filled with ear-splitting tantrums. How many shots of crying kids and playground meltdowns do we need to establish the problem? The narrator exclaims, “It’s a parenting emergency!” or “Can the Supernanny save these parents from absolute disaster?” Yes, of course, she will. Meantime, the everyday drama of dealing with kids effectively is quite enough without the overblown hyperbole.
Likewise, Frost tends to be melodramatic in her advice. She tells one frustrated couple that if they don’t change their discipline strategies, they’ll create a “juvenile delinquent.” To another sleepless mother and father, she says, “I know you love your children, but the way you run this household is just not acceptable.” The show is repetitive, at every break previewing scenes to come and summarizing previous ones. Likely, the idea is that distracted parents will need to catch up. Soap operas use that sort of repetition and summary brilliantly. But here it seems unnecessary, like padding.
The show shines when it uses its premise to get at deeper social themes. Gender role expectations serve as a hot button, and Frost often coaxes fathers into sharing in parenting. In an episode entitled “Jeans Family,” a middle-aged couple with three young girls sees big results when the traveling-salesman father gets “more involved.” One man admits Frost busted him for sitting in his recliner all day. Many of the mothers feel like failures when they can’t be superwoman and take on the roles of primary caregiver (with sparse hubby help) and full-time career woman and make it all work. In “Ririe Family,” Frost rescues a wife who fears “failing as a mother.” Again, the couch potato father must engage with their four young kids.
Some dramatic tension emerges in the participants’ own resistance. They’re eager to do well, but also reluctant to have a stranger (with a camera crew) come into their home and tell them what to do. And predictably, many are emotionally tied to their failing parenting measures, as they’ve become patterns. It’s hard for them to hear what Frost has to tell them. The Ririe mother, for example, says of Frost’s assessment, “It’s kind of a slap in the face, but it’s one that [we] needed.”
Frost is also good doling out warm fuzzies; she knows her business but also clearly cares about the families. She’s light on the British bluster, heavy on the Mary Poppins charm. It is ironic that these American parents need a British nanny to come teach them. Frost actually comments on that dynamic. In the Ririe episode, she tells the couple, “As an Englishwoman, I can sit here and say you are the American Dream. However, I can see this going down the road to a nightmare if you’re not careful.” After the parents absorb their lesson, the mother says, “Jo gave us our life back. And that’s our American Dream…. She gave us our family back.” Her teary earnestness is somewhat moving, though when she links her comments to the American Dream, it sounds forced and corny.
Supernanny is better than the other British nanny knock-off, Fox’s Nanny 911, which has too many twee outfits and quaint sayings, as well as an English thatched cottage serving as a cheesy “Nanny Central.” This nanny inspires confidence in her pupils. While not exactly the stuff of screaming fans, Supernanny‘s British pop culture invasion is doing some good — she’s a superhero who can stop screaming kids in a single bound.