I’m not going to lie, I definitely have a type. When it comes to an appealing fictional character, if she’s a strong badass with a firm, unwavering sense of self as she grows throughout her narrative, I’m so in love. Bonus points if she’s played by Shelley Long, because let’s be real, that’s kind of her wheelhouse. Can we just look at the glory that is Diane Chambers? She works to acclimate herself to the Cheers environment without once betraying her passionate over-educated nature, and she manages to learn a few things about herself as she becomes more and more comfortable in the place where everybody knows your name. AND THEN Shelley has the audacity to take that essence and transfer it to Phyllis Nefler, the fabulous denizen of Beverly Hills who found herself in the new position of Wilderness Girl troop leader. How very dare she? There are a lot of things to love about Troop Beverly Hills, but Phyllis’ evolution—along with that of her trusty Wilderness Girls—is a big part of why this movie shines for me. And it’s a big part of why she stands out as a character.
But it’s not like Shelley Long is the only one giving us a few fierce ladies to love; thankfully we’ve got a whole army of fierce to depend on. Bonus points if she’s in a classic sitcom, because let’s be real, that’s kind of my wheelhouse.
I have no self-control when it comes to The Nanny. I see a standard two-episode block on TV, and I’m immediately grabbing my series boxset to watch eight more directly after. I conducted a series rewatch in 12 days while being a full-time grad student who also worked, and I still don’t understand how I pulled that off. Something about Fran Drescher is irresistibly charming as hell, and I just want that in my life, sue me. But somewhere in the middle of fawning over the Flashy Girl from Flushing for the millionth time, I started to realize just how much she had in common with my favorite troop leader. And since few things give me more joy than combining two of my loves when no one asked me to, allow me to throw this out there: Fran Fine is the East Coast Phyllis Nefler.
You know I’m right.
And it’s not just because of the surface similarities, although they’re definitely part of the equation. They’ve got the fashion sense, they’ve got that method of childcare that only comes with someone who was never in charge of that many kids before but somehow still nails it. They’ve got their rivals and their allies. But more importantly, they’ve got that badass streak in them. They not only hold their own when they find themselves in uncharted territory, but also flourish when they find their footing. And they’re experts at proving people wrong. You just know that if these two had crossed paths, they would have become fast friends. But, since that special TV event only exists in my mind, please enjoy my in-depth analysis of how the unlikeliest nanny and Troop 332’s fearless leader are forever connected in spirit.
Hopefully, by the end of this you’ll join me in wishing the Sheffields had ended up in their happily ever after on the West Coast about a decade sooner, because that would have been one hell of a crossover.
Exhibit A: Unparalleled fashion sense
It wasn’t until Shelley Long was being fitted for what would eventually become Phyllis Nefler’s wardrobe that she fully understood the character she was about to play. As she put it, “When I put the dress on, I knew who Phyllis was, and that was perfect, and that had never happened to me before, where a costumer showed me who my character was.” I don’t usually think to look towards wardrobe choices to help me understand a character, but I think when it comes to both Phyllis and Fran, the clothes tell as much of the story as the storyline itself.
I won’t dive too deep into the fabulous fashion of Phyllis Nefler, since Maggie already did such an amazing job analyzing the looks of Troop Beverly Hills a few years back, but let it be known that I adore Phyllis and her choices. It takes an incredible amount of confidence to wear some of her looks (like what Maggie lovingly called the Mockingjay, and what I lovingly call the taco dress), and I admire her so much for that. And I love that she was able to take a shapeless blob of a standard-issue khaki uniform and continuously reinvent it to fit her style, accomplishing the incredible feat of expressing yourself with a garment that is built to suppress self-expression. She’s got a nautical look for the patch ceremony at the marina, she’s got that swishy skirt to make the Cookie Time song extra fun. The woman is even making jodhpurs work. I mean, what even is that? HOW even is that?
Meanwhile, in 1993 New York City, if you were still shaky on your perception of who Fran Fine was during the pilot episode of The Nanny, she sure as hell cleared that up during her entrance into Maxwell’s backer party. You watched her walking down the staircase in that bold red dress into a sea of black suits, and you knew EXACTLY who she was in this universe, and how she fit in to the Sheffields’ puzzle. You knew she was about to shake things up for the better in a way no one saw coming. And you knew exactly where she’d be standing with both Maxwell and C.C. in that moment; it was obvious that Maxwell was taken with her without fully understanding why, and it was obvious that C.C. was having none of it.
Go beyond that first episode and you quickly see that they don’t call her The Flashy Girl from Flushing for nothing. Fran’s wardrobe, like Phyllis’, is just plain fun (and if you’re not following the What Fran Wore Instagram account, stop depriving yourself of joy). Everyone else around her gravitates towards dark and neutral colors most of the time—although there is the occasional exception as the series goes on and Fran’s influence on the Sheffield home becomes more and more apparent—whether it’s a school uniform or a suit for conducting some serious theater business. But Fran? Fran is wearing literal rainbows, in strips, in stripes, and in human Rubik’s Cube. She’s easily the most colorful person in just about any room she’s in, and it gives you such a vivid picture of exactly who Fran Fine is. Which is not to say that she can’t rock a little black dress. Please…she has that on lock:
These ladies’ sense of style goes beyond simply putting a look together, though; they sometimes let their wardrobe speak for them when their words aren’t enough. When Phyllis feels as though Velda and the Red Feathers defeated her troop, she first crawls into bed in that black robe, drinking way too much Evian while watching old home movies of Hannah, before going a bit drab for her sensibilities (although I’d wear the shit out of it on the regular), dressing in black and grey for what she thinks is her final meeting with her troop. The fact that she chooses not to dress in the wonderfully bright creations she became known for up until that point speaks volumes to her outlook at her lowest moment. Similarly, there are instances throughout The Nanny where it seems as though Fran’s wardrobe is an outward reflection of her feelings. For instance, when Fran’s about to leave her job and the Sheffields to marry Danny Imperiali (ugh) towards the end of the first season, she says her goodbyes dressed in all black, as if in mourning for the life she doesn’t want to leave behind:
(Okay, so there’s a little leopard print involved, but come on, this IS Fran Fine we’re talking about. Also, yeah, I realize this is the outfit she was wearing when she first set foot in the Sheffield mansion—plus a hat—and the argument could be made for a full circle moment, but just let me have this one.)
Then, of course, when you’re so used to this woman wearing bright, neon colors, it’s striking to see this modest pastel green outfit when she has her serious talk with Maxwell about where they stand with each other after “The Thing” (oy, The Thing):
Fran’s got those looks scattered throughout the six seasons of The Nanny, but no matter what she’s wearing, she always stays true to that good old-fashioned Fine style. And Phyllis always manages to make things that should never work on anyone look stunning. No doubt about it, these women take the phrase “fashion statement” to the highest level, and it’s fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I mean…Fran’s cousin Toddy was Todd Oldham, for god’s sake.
Exhibit B: Their unique ways with children
Upon first glance, these ladies may not be your first choice to look after your kids. At the start of Troop Beverly Hills, Phyllis had a definite materialistic streak going, and her relationship with Hannah was likely a little more distant than either of them would have liked. Fran showed up on the Sheffields’ doorstep to sell cosmetics and wrote down a thirty-second nannying résumé using lipstick. Give each of them a chance, though, and they’re able to take their own experiences and insight and mold them into quality life lessons to pass onto the younger generation.
As Maggie and I discovered a few years back, Troop Beverly Hills is loaded with life lessons to take away from each delightful viewing (we really love this movie, okay?). Whether Phyllis is giving her girls words to live by, or—sometimes inadvertently—teaching by example, Troop 332 gains a wealth of knowledge that I would be willing to bet would have gone in one ear and out the other if it had been taught the Velda Plendor way. Through the refusal to simply have the parents buy the cookies needed to qualify them for the jamboree, and through the resulting fashion show and Cookie Time song extravaganza, Phyllis taught the girls about teamwork and the rewards that come with refusing to take the easy way out. Through perseverance despite the naysayers within the Wilderness Girls organization and—at first—within her strained marital ties, she taught them to never give up. Through simply being herself and fitting her own life experience with the Wilderness Girl ideals, she taught them that there’s more than one way to be successful. And, of course, through over-packing for an overnight campout, Phyllis unleashes the words of wisdom that I’ve taken to heart in my own life:
Travel to the East Coast, and you’ll find a lady in red teaching everyone wearing tan a thing or two about life, via her own Flushing upbringing. When she’s not reading Harlequin romances with the juicy stuff edited out to Grace or refusing to be intimidated by “somebody who can walk under a coffee table,” she’s doling out a few helpful tips that likely wouldn’t have come about with any nanny who ended up at the Sheffields’ door by…you know…legitimate channels. For instance, would the nanny agency have sent over someone who would try to teach an heiress to never shop retail? Or someone with this kind of nutritional insight?
OR someone who naturally exudes this kind of confidence, rolls with the punches, AND can pass that on to the children?
And honestly, this little piece of advice/hard truth about Barbie during playtime is probably something you never even thought of:
So maybe Fran and Phyllis don’t follow the traditional script, but really…aren’t the unconventional lessons the ones you’re going to remember the best, anyway?
Exhibit C: That time Fran was a troop leader for a hot second
Oh, yes. That happened. It was a blip of a storyline in season two, but “Curse of the Grandmas” had Fran donning khaki and channeling her inner Phyllis Nefler more so than usual for a few minutes. She volunteered to be Grace’s Red Robin troop leader, heading downstairs to prepare for the latest meeting in a uniform that looks SO MUCH like one of Phyllis’ altered Wilderness Girls uniform, I can’t believe Theodora Van Runkle’s name isn’t anywhere to be found in the credits for this episode. I mean, look at this:
Switch out the red for green, and you’ve basically got a Wilderness Girl on your hands.
And like Phyllis, Fran is tailoring the Red Robin teachings to fit her areas of expertise. While Mrs. Nefler is teaching her girls jewelry appraisal and sushi appreciation, Fran’s showing the girls how a trusty slipknot in a scarf can not only hide any unexpected bug guts, but also give the illusion of cleavage. Plus, both of our leading ladies believes that community service begins with giving back to our elders. While Phyllis and her girls are teaching everyone how to Freddie in one retirement home, Fran’s assigned each of her girls a grandma to spend time with while she visits with Yetta in another. Sure, Grace’s grandmas kept dying on her, but it’s the thought that counts?
The Red Robins were never mentioned again, but Fran’s Phyllis Nefler was showing so much in this episode that it couldn’t go unrecognized. And I still can’t get over the tailored uniform. You just know that if this was any kind of story arc in the series, we would have been seeing about 87 variations on the Red Robin wardrobe.
Exhibit D: Velda Plendor is to C.C. Babcock as Frances Temple is to Niles
Some people just don’t give you a chance. They take one look at you, judge you, and stand firm in that opinion, no matter how off-base it is. Velda Plendor was against Phyllis, and the entire Beverly Hills troop, from the very start. She took one look at Phyllis during that late entrance to the orientation meeting, immediately knew she found someone who was going to challenge her perception of what a Wilderness Girl should be, and decided that she was a bad person because of it. Throughout the course of Troop Beverly Hills, Velda makes it her personal mission to derail Phyllis’ troop at every possible turn, from forcing Annie to spy on Phyllis and the girls, to narcing on them for the unconventional patches they earned in record time, to cheating during the jamboree when it became quite apparent that Beverly Hills could actually win this thing. Of course, it was pointless to even fight it, because when push came to shove, look who scored the coveted poster troop position, and look who ended up selling blue light special cookies at Kmart.
Fast forward four years, and C.C. Babcock is getting a glimpse of the Sheffields’ new nanny and cannot believe her eyes. And she cannot believe how Maxwell is immediately taken by Fran when she hasn’t been able to get her foot in that door during their entire business relationship. While the women did occasionally have moments of kindness (I know, Fran was never malicious, but there were times when C.C. did let up…even if she did have an ulterior motive), C.C. seemed to find herself a new hobby as soon as Fran started working for the Sheffields. Whenever she saw an opportunity to best Fran and try to win points with Max, she took it, even if it blew up in her face. And it ALWAYS blew up in her face; remember the time she bet her brother that Fran couldn’t get on Jeopardy! but Fran ended up winning the game (How come no one puts their sitcom characters on Jeopardy! anymore, I really loved that trope)? But no matter what—whether it’s an embarrassing celebrity encounter or mistaking a Shakespeare manuscript for the shopping list which then got stolen—nothing could ever dim Fran’s light in Maxwell’s eyes. Which may not have thrilled C.C., but damn did that show have some of the steamiest ship-tastic moments I’ve ever seen.
Listen, C.C. may have refused to call Fran anything other than Nanny Fine even after she married Maxwell, but whatever…we all know that the will they/won’t they hierarchy in The Nanny starts at Fran and Maxwell and ends at C.C. and Niles. Even if C.C. didn’t realize that shit until the end of the series.
But for every adversary, there’s at least one person on your side. For Phyllis, it’s Frances Temple, the head of the Wilderness Girls organization, sticking up for Troop 332 every time Velda tries to shoot them down. Frances recognizes the troop’s differences in comparison with the rest of the Wilderness Girls and immediately sees them as their strengths. She fends Velda off at every turn, recognizing that there’s more than one way to be a Wilderness Girl, and is actively rooting for our favorite troop to succeed. For Fran, the Sheffields’ trusty butler Niles is the one who plants himself firmly in her corner. Sure, in the pilot, he’s a little wary at first; she’s not like any of the other countless nannies that have come and gone before she happened upon their door. But within those first thirty minutes, he quickly realizes that she’s just what everyone needs, and is right there to gently let Maxwell know that he was an idiot for firing her after the backer’s party. From then on, the two became best friends, Niles fending C.C. off for Fran at every turn and Fran being the sounding board for that delightful Niles sass. It’s honestly one of my favorite friendships in television history.
Not to mention, Niles is basically the biggest Fran/Max shipper of us all, and consistently takes one for the team in an effort for the two to get to their foregone conclusion a little bit faster (FOUR AND A HALF SEASONS of slow burn, people. Four and a half. OUT OF SIX. Asdfsjhkgadsksjha *headdesk*). Truly doing the lord’s work.
Exhibit E: Sisters are doin’ it for themselves
Both of our leading ladies’ stories starts at a low point, one caused by the men in their lives being total dicks. But, from the ashes of the bridges that are probably better off burned to a crisp rises a fierce phoenix of independence, new opportunities, and strength that was inside of them all along. Who knew that a muffler man’s and a discount bridal store owner’s total loss would be our total gain?
Look, I am of the firm belief that Phyllis deserves so much better than Freddie, because while she spent the entire movie growing, he’s still a stunted man who will not chew with his mouth shut (dude doesn’t even deserve pizza if he’s going to do that) and wishes he could get back with Phyllis even though he doesn’t really do anything to make up for his part in the divorce; he just basically decided that his midlife crisis was over now, let’s pretend it never happened okay, thanks guys. And while the ONLY thing I would change about Troop Beverly Hills is the two of them getting back together, I do have to give him this: his jabs at Phyllis in the beginning of this movie—pointing out that she never finishes anything she starts, laughing in her face when Hannah tells him that she’s going to be the new troop leader—had to be part of the spark that turned Phyllis into a fire Wilderness Girl. And goddammit, was she fire.
Phyllis took Freddie’s criticism to fuel her evolution, sure, but the evolution itself was never for him. She bettered herself FOR herself; she took her time with the Beverly Hills troop to heart for herself, and for her daughter. The clarity that came with helping eight girls navigate the wilderness of Beverly Hills helped her forge a better path for herself, and helped her place importance on the deeper, better things in life than a discount on a dress that’s missing a bead or the massive pile of shoes she’s weeding through at the store. Through her experiences as troop leader, she rediscovered her independence, and she became a stronger version of herself. I totally get why Freddie would want that energy in his life; Phyllis is a fierce lady. My hope is that, once they did get back together, he saw the way Phyllis grew into an unstoppable force and became inspired to look deep inside himself.
Meanwhile, I have been trying so hard not to start every Fran segment of this post with a lyric from the theme song, but her story is literally the entire song, so please enjoy one of the greatest sitcom themes known to man:
Beginning-of-series Fran (and by beginning, I mean literally the first minute ever and nothing more) was completely fine staying in Flushing, in an environment she knew like the back of her hand, working at Danny’s Parisian Brides for Less and waiting for said Danny to put a ring on it. But then Danny promptly pulled the rug out from under her, leaving her for Heather Biblow and firing her so his new girlfriend can have a job. But if Fran ever worried about where her life was going to go next, she didn’t let you see it. She immediately jumped into a stint selling door-to-door cosmetics, and while it may not have been the most glamorous prospect, at least she kept moving despite that pesky little setback. And once she landed the nanny gig, she never lost that ability to think on her feet while being thrown into a job she had no experience in, taking everything as it came, learning more and more about herself every day.
And by the time she almost ran off with Danny and reverted back to the life she knew before she traveled over the bridge from Flushing to the Sheffields’ door (see? I can’t help myself), she was able to take a step back and evaluate the situation. She was able to see how much she had changed for the better while Danny had stayed the same (“Were you always this stupid?” was such a moment of vindication, and I revel in it every time it comes up). She recognizes that what she once wanted isn’t what she wants now, that she’s been exposed to so many new things in the short time she’s been with the Sheffields, and her possibilities are literally endless. Once he was out the door for good, she continued to grow from her experiences throughout the rest of the series. And she continued to shine her bright light on everyone who crossed her path.
Seriously though, who would win in a gross-off between Freddie Nefler and Danny Imperiali? Place your bets in the comments.
Exhibit F: Encouraging you to read the book, not judge the cover
If you were in Maxwell Sheffield’s shoes, you may have just hired a door-to-door cosmetics salesgirl to take care of your kids—or, if you were in Frances Temple’s Wilderness Girls uniform, you may have just approved a Beverly Hills socialite’s application to be troop leader—and thought “What the hell did I just do?” You know what, though? I’ll tell you what you just did. You let the light in. You let a breath of fresh air fill your lungs. You changed a bunch of lives for the better.
When you’re thrown into a completely foreign environment and you’re trying to keep your head above water, your logic and your problem-solving skills get thrown into overdrive and show you things you didn’t even know you were capable of. Phyllis had Velda and everyone else connected to the Wilderness Girls (Frances Temple notwithstanding) watching her every move, waiting for a mistake, waiting for complete and utter failure. And even though some people didn’t understand her methods, Phyllis managed to build a strong troop of girls who not only outsold every other troop during cookie season, but also earned a record number of patches in a record number of time, gave back to the community via dance lessons and describing Fall fashions to the blind, and kicked ass in the annual jamboree. The result? Phyllis proved everyone wrong in the best way, and Troop 332 became the Wilderness Girl poster troop for 1990. That’s my girl.
And what about Fran? C.C. hated her from the start. Max was incredibly apprehensive about keeping her on for longer than a weekend. She consistently crossed paths with society types who didn’t really know what to do around someone like Fran. But in spite all of that, she helped the Sheffield kids grow, showed them things they may never have seen without her, and brought some much-needed excitement to the occasion. And since I already started quoting theme song lyrics, she really was just exactly what the doctor prescribed. I think the biggest example of this comes, once again, from the pilot episode, and the incredibly endearing, ever-crucial sandwich moment; the essence of that scene became a staple of the series, to the point where, with every script, some version of the sandwich scene’s emotional pull had to be present (bless the series boxset for its bonus features; in a conversation between Fran Drescher and Peter Marc Jacobson, Fran said they made a point of asking “Where’s the sandwich scene?” every week). After Fran made Maggie over for the backer’s party and brought her out of her shell, Max catches his daughter being kissed by one of the waiters and immediately goes into overprotective mode, firing Fran because—by his logic—she’s the reason that this happened in the first place. In her absence, Niles brings Maxwell a sandwich in lieu of the proper meal he was denied during the party, and in response to Max’s surprised delight over it, this exchange occurs:
Niles: I believe Miss Fine calls it “a light nosh.”
Maxwell: It’s delicious. Miss Fine, eh?
Niles: Yes. Just what you needed.
Maxwell: Niles, you’re not talking about the sandwich, are you?
Niles: No, sir. Not the sandwich.
And really, isn’t that Fran Fine in a nutshell (a nutshell that’s edited out of the syndicated version, which makes NO DAMN SENSE BECAUSE IT’S THE WHOLE POINT OF THE SERIES)? And Phyllis Nefler, for that matter? Fran is in no way the conventional pick to be the nanny for the Sheffield family just like Phyllis is in no way the conventional pick to be troop leader. But they each are exactly what the world they’re thrown into needs. With Troop 332, they needed a friend and a role model who could help them see the wonderful and unique qualities that already lived inside them. With the Sheffields, they needed someone to remind them of the unpredictable, fun and exciting side of life. Which wasn’t going to happen with someone like Velda, or by some nanny who was going to strictly adhere to the rules of the job. When they turn your world upside down, you realize how great it is on the flip side. They are unexpected and they are vital. They are the most delightful surprise.
Give me more women like these women, all day every day.
What do you think about Phyllis and Fran? Who are your favorite unconventional badasses? Let’s chat in the comments!