By Ken Tucker
Updated February 09, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

If there’s such a thing as charming smuttiness, The Nanny possesses this quality in spades. Playing a working-class girl from Queens employed by a wealthy Manhattan family — ”the flashy girl from Flushing/The nanny named Fran,” as Ann Hampton Callaway’s chatty theme song puts it — Fran Drescher is a live-action sexual cartoon: Betty Boop with a New Yawk bray, never emitting a double entendre when a single one will do. Her tough, smart Fran Fine scampers around the house in tight short skirts and spike heels while caring for the domestic needs of her widowed boss, Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), and his three children, played by Nicholle Tom, Benjamin Salisbury, and Madeline Zima.

Drescher and her husband, writer-producer Peter Marc Jacobson, created The Nanny as a showcase for Drescher soon after she proved to be the only performer worth watching in the 1991 sitcom Princesses. When The Nanny premiered in November 1993, it was a chilly, vaguely depressing little sitcom about how cosmetics peddler Fran, just jilted by her boyfriend, decided to work for the snooty Sheffields. The comedy was supposed to arise from the contrast between vulgar Fran and proper, British-born Maxwell: Drescher has played up her character’s lower-middle-class Jewishness to a degree that would make an old Catskills comic blush, while Maxwell, we’re asked to believe, is a wildly successful Broadway producer who spends most of his time at home chatting with his butler, Niles (Daniel Davis), and worrying about whether ”Miss Fine” is happy.

Well, it took a while — for most of the first season, The Nanny was more like Fran Drescher and a Buncha Stiffs — but the series has warmed up considerably. The show has found a popular comic duo in Niles and Maxwell’s grim business partner, C.C. Babcock (Lauren Lane); the studio audience shrieks in giddy anticipation of their sniping. (Given that these exchanges primarily involve yuks about how unappealingly masculine C.C. is, I find this reaction just creepy and mean.) Drescher has said she’s a big admirer of I Love Lucy, and she’s certainly steered The Nanny in that direction. Rarely does an episode go by without Fran wailing loudly in her best Lucy-in-trouble imitation, and on a recent episode, Maxwell did a quick Desi Arnaz impersonation to express his exasperation with flighty Fran.

The latest edition of the conservative newsletter TV, etc. ran a picture of Drescher bursting out of a tiny leopard-skin dress and noted sternly that ”The Nanny‘s protagonist often spouts dialogue laced with sexual innuendo.” Gee, do you think they meant the scene a few weeks ago in which Fran got under Maxwell’s desk to rub his injured foot and Niles walked in just as she was saying ”Should I rub some lotion on it?” Or maybe it has to do with Fran referring to Maxwell’s member as ”the little producer” and to Maxwell’s son’s member as a ”gherkin”?

Or maybe it was that classic moment when, with Maxwell in the hospital for an operation, Fran was mistaken for a scrub nurse and ordered to shave his groin? Sure, there are a lot of sex jokes during the 8-to-9-p.m. former family hour now, but shows like Friends and Roseanne don’t trade on this kind of boffing-the-boss obsessiveness, in which class and ethnicity are as much the point of the dirty jokes as sex is.

The Nanny is apparently a big hit with kids (who no doubt love that risqueéhumor, Fran’s slapstick, and her strict but commonsensical approach to child rearing), with gay men (for whom Drescher has been a camp icon at least as far back as her terrific shrew-publicist role in This Is Spinal Tap), and with anyone who likes watching Fran Fine’s weekly wiggle down the Sheffields’ long spiral staircase. Shrewdly crude, The Nanny sure ain’t no Friends rip-off, and that’s something of a blessing.