ABC's genial "Supernanny" (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET) and Fox's "Nanny 911" (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET) appear at first glance to be the same show. They aren't.
In both, a British nanny (Jo on "Supernanny," one of three rotating regulars on "Nanny 911") helps the parents of incorrigible children bring them into line. Both involve unsettling footage of misbehavior and ineffectual haranguing, and both offer a happy ending. But while "Supernanny" favors children with bedtime issues or a tendency to talk back, "Nanny 911" spotlights genuinely upsetting family dynamics.
Take this week's episode of "Nanny 911," in which Nanny Stella visited a family whose children enjoyed kicking, hitting, biting, and spitting on their mother, but snapped to compliant attention whenever their father came home. Creepy!
Nanny Stella showed Mom that holding her kids in a death grip while they chomped on her arm like Bengal tigers wasn't a foolproof approach to discipline. But when the kids confessed that Dad sometimes threatened them with a belt, Nanny Stella's eyebrow popped.
Stella sat down with Dad and said that perhaps terrifying his children with fears of physical violence wasn't the answer, and not only because it made them take their frustrations out on their mother. Dad sniffed. In a moment entirely free of genuineness or credibility, he instantly saw the light and changed his ways, and four days later, Nanny Stella left the family in a healed, functional condition.
The truth is that all the instructional domestic shows could be alternatively titled "Families More Terrifying Than Yours!" It's the nature of the beast. But belt-snapping authoritarians allegedly reformed by one conversation aren't entertaining; they're just scary.
If you must watch a nanny show, stay home on Friday nights with Jo-Jo, who will show you nothing really eyebrow-raising unless you count a little something called the "naughty spot."
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.