I was taken aback the other day when I read that the British economy has been experiencing a significant downturn. "Wait a minute," I thought to myself, "what on earth am I doing reading a story about the British economy?" I quickly turned the page in search of an item more likely to have an immediate impact on my life, such as the horoscope column.
But before doing so I learned that in Britain, just like here in the United States, a down housing market has been the primary cause of the English economic woes. According to the article, the ripple effects have been felt in slumping car sales, increased unemployment, declining restaurant patronage and perhaps most upsetting for the English people 1.6 million fewer pints of beer sold daily in British pubs compared with this time last year. On the bright side, British authorities also report 1.6 million fewer incidents of public urination per day.
But what surprised me the most about this story was that I had assumed the British economy was doing just fine. Admittedly, I wasn't basing this assumption on traditional economic indicators like the GDP (gross domestic product) or CPI (consumer price index), but rather on a dramatic increase in a statistic of my own devising called the NORTSFEN (Number of Reality Television Shows Featuring English Nannies).
You've no doubt at least caught snippets of this particular reality subgenre, with shows featuring titles like Nanny 911, Supernanny, Nanny Get Your Gun, Love is a Nanny-Splendored Thing, etc. These programs all feature a prim British nanny straight out of central casting, complete with umbrella, thick accent and disapproving air, who is dispatched to intervene on a dysfunctional American family.
Typically the nanny arrives to find a household in turmoil where the parents have lost all control and the children are screaming, fighting, cursing, discharging firearms and generally misbehaving so badly that they could easily be mistaken for adult reality show contestants.
After spending a day monitoring the children, the nanny sits down with the parents and patiently explains, citing specific examples from her observations, why she needs to get the hell out of there. Or at least that's what I'd do. The kids on these shows are so wild, they make a strong case for dosing the nation's Hi-C supply with Ritalin. And the feckless parents are no better with their misguided attempts at discipline after watching one child whale away on his brother with a wiffle ball bat for a few minutes, a dad will typically step in by saying, "Stop hitting your brother. Let your sister have a turn."
But the nannies somehow manage to straighten things out. They teach mom and dad more effective parenting techniques like following through on disciplinary threats, instituting a "time out" chair to punish misbehavior and not handing steak knives to the kids and telling them to go play by the electrical outlet. The kids, meanwhile, seem to undergo genuine behavior changes as all their aggression and misbehavior is redirected toward trying to figure out what the strange lady with the funny accent and bad teeth is saying.
Part of the appeal of these shows is that they tap into the uniquely American belief, passed down from the hardy early pioneers who tamed this great nation, that no struggle is too intimidating, no obstacle too insurmountable and no personal problem too embarrassing that it can't be solved by making a spectacle of yourself on television. Hey, it always works for the guests on the Jerry Springer show, right? I mean, once they get out on parole, that is.
And while I'm sure the TV networks tout the educational value of these nanny programs and how viewers can learn proper parenting techniques from the nannies' wealth of experience ("Honey, it turns out we're not supposed to store oily rags in the kids' closet alongside our collection of roadside flares"), but that's like saying people watch Survivor to learn what to do in case they're ever stranded on a remote island and their only chance at survival depends on their ability to form an "alliance" with a chiropractor from Van Nuys.
No, the truth is that many of us like to watch these nanny shows because we appreciate seeing hopelessly out-of-control real-life families that by comparison make our households look like we're taping episodes of "Leave it to Beaver: The Next Generation."
And frankly, that's what good reality television is all about allowing those of us at home to look around at the problems in our own lives the family discord, the relationship troubles, financial insecurities, the dishes piling up in the sink and say, "Well, my life may not be perfect, but at least I'm not competing to see if I can eat two dozen ox testicles in under a minute."