From left, Katie Shirley, twins Mya and Ella Lobo, Emma Bellmar and Amber… (Greg Zabiliski / ABC Family )
During the 18th century, a fashionable pastime among London's rich and royal was to visit Bethlem Royal Hospital, most commonly known as Bedlam, and watch the antics of the mentally ill. In the 21st century, it is the rich and famous who are gaped at, their habits and habitats reveled in and reviled through the lens of reality TV.
What started as an aspirational experience, epitomized by the gushing "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," has become a cottage industry of class schadenfreude, the crown jewel being the "Real Housewives" franchise. Just look at the size of their closets and their neuroses, see how their children sass them and their "friends" disrespect them, how their marriages rot in front of our shocked and grateful eyes.
Now even ABC Family has gotten into the act with "Beverly Hills Nannies," which premieres on Wednesday. Created by Evolution Media, the company behind the "Real Housewives" ("You've met the housewives, now meet the help" is the official tag line), "Beverly Hills Nannies" uses a group of attractive and articulate young caregivers to frame the excesses and eccentricities of the moneyed class.
As with any reality show, participants are not quite A, or even B, list. We will take Kristin Lancione (and ABC Family's) word that she is "one of the top nannies in Beverly Hills" and certainly the young women and men she is trying to corral into her nascent placement agency appear capable. But the families are mostly not names most viewers will know. Lancione nannies for model-actress Cindy Margolis, whose claim to fame is being "the most downloaded woman of 1999"; Justin Sylvester works for new mother Marika Tsircou, and Amber Valdez joins the household of Ariane Bellamar. In the second episode, we see Sylvester interview with Lindsay Faulk, who is separated from NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, while Lucy Treadway tries to get a job nannying for Tricia Fisher,Carrie Fisher's half-sister.
The other nannies also include a couple of model-ready "mannies," as well as Midwest transplant Amanda Averill and Maggie Thorne, who is Kristin's best friend and also a party girl. Kristin's attempt to pry the beer highball glass out of Maggie's hand long enough to make her a nanny promises to be one of the more interesting, and unsettling, story lines of the show, which otherwise breaks down into a breathless catalog of perks — the cars! the trips! the houses! — and plagues — the scampi-demanding children, the groping dads and, most important, the diva moms. Watch as frozen-faced Ariane makes Amber pick up her lap dog's poop! Gasp as Marika drops designer names and then demands that Justin rub her feet! Laugh as the vegan mom goes through her ninth nanny and Margolis tells viewers just how much her fertility-aided children cost!
Because it's on ABC Family, there is a certain restraint and structure not typical of these shows; the collective IQ of the cast is noticeably higher than on the "Real Housewives" while the vitriol is lower. Both nannies and parents are consistently affectionate and appropriate with the children and the creation of Kristin's agency provides a reasonable excuse for the nannies to gather at least once an episode to swap war stories and create the sort of internal intrigue upon which these shows thrive.
And that may be the most striking part of "Beverly Hills Nannies" — the nannies are just as narcissist and entitled as their employers. Although young and relatively inexperienced, they expect to be paid as much as $40 an hour — "what?" says Fisher when Lucy announces her fee, "are you going to be teaching them a foreign language?" — and then complain when the work includes learning how to cook shrimp or walking the dog. They, like many viewers of these shows, seem to feel that those in the orbit of the wealthy should somehow automatically acquire its advantages, as if through osmosis or gravitational pull.
As a show using the word "reality" or any shorthand of the word "documentary," "Beverly Hills Nannies" may be the falsest of the genre — certainly anyone looking for a truly good nanny would have "does not want to be star of reality show about nannying" on top of the old checklist. But as a reflection of the art form, of our need to sit in judgment of those whose lives differ from ours while secretly wishing we were them, it's right on the money.