One of the great mysteries of reality-show culture is why people air their problems to the world. Take the new Lifetime series “America’s Supernanny,” a U.S. version of the popular franchise that ran on ABC for seven years. If you had an out-of-control family situation on the brink of collapse, why would you share it with millions?
Woodbridge-based child-care specialist Deborah Tillman, the star of the series, knows the answer: desperation. She has been there. Twenty years ago, she went through a nightmare trying to find child care for her newborn son, encountering one horrific babysitter after another. It got so bad, she said, that not only did she quit her job to take care of him herself, but the experience also spurred her to share her story with anyone who would listen — and ultimately, start her own child-care-center business.
On “America’s Supernanny,” Tillman steps in to assist parents who call the show for help, parents who are too exhausted to care who sees private family business. “I go into households that are broken, that have no hope,” says Tillman, the founder of three child-care centers in Northern Virginia. “They need us, they’re desperate, and they really want us there.”
A New Jersey native who met her husband in the Washington area and stayed here, Tillman’s extensive kid-centric background caught the attention of Shed Media, the Los Angeles production company behind the Lifetime series. After holding an open casting call that garnered hundreds of applicants, the company contacted Tillman to find out whether she would be interested. Following a series of interviews, screen tests and a trip to California to meet with executives, she was hired as “Supernanny.”
“When I looked at her audition tape, I just saw this incredible personality, which was first and foremost what I was drawn to,” said Rob Sharenow, executive vice president of programming for Lifetime Networks. “She’s this very striking woman, very well-spoken, and then she’s also got all the credentials.”
If the term“Supernanny” conjures images of a no-nonsense British woman who tells parents what they are doing wrong and how to fix it, it’s because Jo Frost has starred in the U.K. series since 2004. That show was picked up by ABC in 2005 and canceled this past spring.
Tillman, who has a master’s degree in early childhood special education from George Washington University, says she hasn’t caught many episodes of the original, and is glad that she didn’t get any ideas about how to behave before she started filming.
“I don’t want to mimic anybody,” said Tillman, who is making her TV debut. “This is me being very real, very transparent. It’s not a role. I just go in and do what I would normally do, and put techniques in place to help families.”
And, oh boy, does the New York family in Tuesday’s premiere need a lot of techniques. Parents Kim and Mark are unable to control their three kids, namely 4-year-old Tate, who likes to scream, bite, hit, cry hysterically and damage the house. This sends 5-year-old Nora into a frenzy, while 9-year-old Neva is ignored.
Tillman (referred to on the show as “Miss Deborah”) approaches the house with a calm but utterly disapproving demeanor, as she witnesses Mom on the verge of tears, holding the door shut while Tate is in a timeout, screaming.
Observing the chaos and sternly telling Kim and Mark what’s breaking down, discipline- and communication-wise, Miss Deborah gets to work. She implements a “calm-down corner” for Tate; she gets Mark to stop escaping the house with long bike rides and start spending more time with his children; and she comes up with a handy trick to stop separation anxiety when a babysitter comes over, by getting the kids psyched for a super-special activity once Mom and Dad leave the house (one time it’s smoothies, another time it’s cupcakes).
Some aspects of the show will seem similar to the British version, such as Tillman’s stern-not-mean attitude and the overall structure. Sharenow insists that it’s a different show, namely because of what Tillman brings to the screen.
“She’s a real child-care expert, she’s not just some television personality,” he said, adding that the show is a good fit for Lifetime because of its core viewers’ fascination with all aspects of parenting. In terms of reinventing the show, he said the network liked “the idea of bringing an American personality to the experience and how that would change things.”
Sharenow says the series is making an effort to be as diverse as possible as another way to set itself apart from the original. Eight hour-long episodes have been ordered for the first season, and spotlight a family with two moms; parents with a special-needs child; and a woman nearly nine months pregnant with twins who is dealing with 10 children (the woman had contractions during filming, Tillman said).
Tillman said her years of working at her Virginia child-care centers helped prepare her for the madness. As for the other families that appear on the show, Tillman hasn’t seen anyone who simply wants to be a reality-TV star — just regular people in need of help.
“They know it’s going to take hard work. I’m not Mary Poppins,” Tillman says. “I’m not going to go in and wave a magic wand. There’s hard work that needs to be done in order to change behavior. They have to be willing to do that, or why call me?”
One hour. Premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Lifetime.