Reviews

Supernanny

Leigh H. Edwards

Jo Frost is light on the British bluster, heavy on the Mary Poppins charm.


Supernanny

Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jo Frost
Network: ABC
Amazon

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.