At the beginning of this year, Jo Frost returned to the show she originated more than 15 years ago. But now, its 20 new episodes on Lifetime have evolved to address more than just nuclear families with screaming, tantrum-throwing toddlers.
Jo’s help for those diverse families has taken over an entire evening: You can now watch four hours of Supernanny every Friday on Lifetime, with new episodes premiering at 9 p.m. ET.
I interviewed Jo and an executive producer from the show’s production company, Shed Media, about bringing the show back more than 15 years after the first premiered, and what’s changed. We also talked about broadcasting kids’ bad behavior to the world, and about having empathy for parents who don’t know what they’re doing.
Supernanny first premiered in the UK in 2004, and came to the US in 2005, 15 years ago. But it’s been off the air for nine years, not counting two seasons of America’s Supernanny, which did not star Jo.
Lifetime’s Supernanny is similar in structure to its early years on ABC: in each episode, Jo Frost helps one family, first observing, then working on specific strategies to help wrangle unruly kids. Like on My Cat From Hell, on which Jackson Galaxy usually finds that a cat’s behavioral problems are because of its owner’s choices, it’s usually less about the kids and more about the adults.
Her observations and advice is still blunt and direct, as you can see in the clip above from tonight’s “Jones-Nickolich Family” episode. In it, Jo says that Heather and Todd—who live in Hawaii and contend with screaming, out-of-control triplets—”are offended with my directness. They are offended with my opinion. Right now they are not wanting the help.”
But of course, they asked for help; they applied to be on the show. Jo said there was an abundance of requests for her help.
“That’s why the show was really important for me to bring back,” Jo said, “because of the thousands of emails, because of the Please, we need your help.”
While the show is “fun and compelling and heartwarming,” Jo said, it was also important to have a network airing the show whose executives were “really were behind being able to give their viewers the help that they needed.”
Jo also offers resources on her web site, but she’d like to see larger, structural change. “I like to see an administration that can understand the importance of a ministry of families,” she said, hoping that “our next round of presidential leadership in this country” will be one that “really understands the importance of family and what we need to do to support them from the beginning.”
Executive producer Dan Peirson told me that the abundance of information available to parents now has created a greater need for the kind of work Jo does on Supernanny.
In the show’s early years, he said, “there was so little parenting advice out there. These days, things are so different. There’s tons of parenting advice; it’s everywhere. … A flood of information isn’t actually helpful for families; what they really want is wisdom that comes from somebody who’s got 30-plus years working with families.”
Judging by those who search online to see if they can hire or even just have a phone call with Supernanny themselves, there’s a need for her advice and assistance. (Those who want her help can apply on the show’s casting site.)
Jo participates in the casting process, screening potential families, and considers how choosing a certain family to be on the show will help other families, including viewers at home.
“When I’m casting, and I’m looking at the abundance of emails that are coming in,” she said. “We are looking for many different type of families that have different parenting challenges, so that I can give as much information across the board to those families that will watch.”
When questions come up about specific situations, Jo said, “I have a team of people that helped me facilitate get those questions to make sure that I specifically have answers to those questions. I do my due diligence.” For example, she said, “I want history on medication, because we cannot we cannot ignore the fact that medication can have an impact on somebody’s psyche.”
The show also now enlists experts on-camera to help with specific situations that may be outside Jo’s area of expertise and training.
“With the Corry family, when Jo found out about Maria’s postpartum [depression],” Peirson said, “the decision to go and meet with her physician—that was something that Jo felt was really important to do, so we made it happen. The physician was happy to take part, which is which is great.”
How Supernanny season 8 has changed from the original
Jo wanted to make sure Lifetime’s revival of Supernanny retained certain elements from the original.
“I always have loved the moments when I’m just talking how it is,” Jo said. “I know that the viewers love that—when you just come out of a house and you’re like, Blimey! It’s getting a bit hot in there right now!”
The key difference now, Jo told me, is in the ages of the kids and the structure of families’ lives. Now, there are kids of “all different ages” and “all different types of family dynamics,” and that’s affected the type of advice she offers.
“Back then it was predominantly toddlers, and inappropriate, mischievous behavior. Now it’s helping families of all different ages: you could be a young adult living at home with a baby with your mom and dad, you could be a parent, a grandparent looking after children while one [parent] is deployed,” she said. “My approaches and techniques and advice have to be different, because I’m dealing with different circumstances.”
After a day of observation, Jo spends three days teaching the family, and then she comes back to check in. There’s only a two-day gap between the teaching days and Jo’s return—not an incredibly long time for the family to practice what they’ve learned.
The show’s aesthetic has been updated, too: it’s less mid-2000s bombastic network reality show and more documentary-style. Some of the footage used was filmed by the families themselves, on cell phones.
Executive producer Peirson told me that “every parent is has a cell phone that’s filled with photos and videos of their kids,” and the show “wanted to utilize the media that exists,” so “a lot of it is self-shot footage from the families, because that speaks to the major problems. That just didn’t exist the last time around.”
He also said that “kids today are very used to being filmed. They’re very used to their lives being captured.”
But are they used to having their lives broadcast to the world and made available for people to judge? After all, having your behavior broadcast to millions on a cable reality show is different than broadcast on social media.
Having empathy for frustrated kids and bad parenting
The kids and their bad behavior takes center stage, especially during the early part of each episode. I asked Peirson, who’s Shed Media’s senior vice president of programming and development, about that—especially since kids aren’t consenting to have their lives taped and become a permanent record.
“Parents obviously make a decision,” he said, to go on the show. And “we’re really, really clear that the reason we do this show above all else is to help families.”
“But if there’s ever anything that we feel like is not in the child’s best interest for that to be in the show, we wouldn’t put it in,” he said. “I think we should all be mindful. I think as parents as well, I’m certainly mindful about what I put out on social media about my kids.”
“She doesn’t come into people’s homes to judge them. She comes to help,” Peirson added. “I think the show provides an opportunity for families to reflect and I think for people at home to also reflect.”
Jo said she also hopes Supernanny can help, in some way, tackle some of society’s problems.
In one episode this season, the Richardson family, Brittany and Ralph and their six kids, were struggling in part because Brittany’s ex, and the father to four of the kids, had recently died, and Ralph hadn’t processed that death and was instead reacting with anger.
“That’s a bigger subject in society: men talking emotionally about how they feel,” Jo told me. “And it does come back to empathy, when we can teach our sons, our husbands, our fathers, that emotionally expressing yourself is not a feminine thing, but a human thing and not a weakness. That’s a stigma that I want to break, because the suicide rate for men is really high. And we do need to break down the stigma around mental health of men talking and saying, This is how I feel, and not feeling that another man is going to judge them.”
That’s a noble goal, though I told Jo that, while I was watching some of the new episodes, it was hard for me to resist judging parents who were so obviously handling things badly, and who were clearly just not ready to raise and nurture a human being.
“Thank you for your honesty,” she said. “I hope the show allows you through 20 episodes to consciously be aware of that and have more compassion and more empathy for these families. Because it’s really, really easy to watch a show and say, Oh, well, why didn’t they do this? And why didn’t they do that? and sit and judge. Actually, some families, they’re not taught. They don’t have families that teach them life skills. And they have a right to have children like anybody else.”
Executive producer Peirson said that even he finds it helpful for dealing with his own children. “There’s a lot of kind of anxiety and tension in this country. But I’d hope that the one thing that everybody can agree on is that it’s incredibly hard to raise kids,” he said. “I find it so instructive as a parent to watch the show to see other people tackling things that they find difficult, because I think we can actually all learn from each other.”
“The bravery and courage of the parents who participate—that’s amazing. It takes a lot to open your family up on, on national television,” he added. “By sharing and talking about our own problems, the challenges we face, we can all help each other.”