tv review

The Baby-Sitters Club Is a Welcome Surprise and Utter Delight

Say hello to your friends (left to right) Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph), Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker), and Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace), in Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club. Also pictured: Claudia’s secret candy stash. Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Netflix

There was a week this month — one week out of this awful, excruciating spring and summer — when I found myself drawn to one TV show over really anything else in my life. Other shows I needed to watch, deadlines, laundry, feeding my children, all of it was just stuff I had to get done so that I could go back to The Baby-Sitters Club, a Netflix adaptation of the beloved middle-grade book series by Ann M. Martin. Watching the show’s ten episodes, which all drop this Friday, July 3, was the most comforting, delightful stretch of viewing I’ve had in the last few months.

I was dubious about the prospect of adapting the series. Like more than one 9-year-old in 1994, I was obsessed with the books for a brief, intense period of my life. The characters were vivid, distinct, and clearly drawn; their problems were often simple but deeply felt. The world of The Baby-Sitters Club was straightforward and obstacles could usually be overcome — but not always. The protagonists, a band of self-sufficient, thoughtful, middle-school-aged girls (and one boy!) dealt with health crises and upheaval within their families. They were given real responsibilities and sometimes made consequential mistakes. I remember some scenes with intense detail: Claudia breaking her leg, the reveal of Stacey’s secret, Jessi learning ASL so she can babysit for a family with a deaf child, Kristy navigating her parents’ divorce.

So I was worried about an adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club with the same skepticism of anyone who loves something and then learns it’s going to be remade. I worried about casting, and whether the series would fall into the TV trap of making the protagonists seem implausibly old, even when they’re supposed to be 13. The two-decade time jump concerned me; what does The Baby-Sitters Club look like now that all these kids have mobile phones? Mostly, I had trepidation about mood. There’s an almost paradoxical sentiment in it, something like heady, thrilling earnestness. What does that look like onscreen? It would be terrible for the show to be thoughtlessly sweet, but arch detachment would’ve been even worse.

The cast won me over first. In her new TV form, club president Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace) is authoritative, well intentioned, and a little selfish. Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada) is optimistic, creative, and a misfit in her own family. Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph) is sophisticated, self-conscious, and boy crazy. Mary-Anne Spier (Malia Baker) has been rewritten as the mixed-race Black daughter of her uptight white widower father (Marc Evan Jackson). The adult cast is also strong, especially Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mom, a first-episode casting reveal that made me gasp in delight. As any book reader knows, eventually the club grows to include other members, most prominently with proto-socialist newcomer Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez). They are fantastic together — a believably middle-school-aged group of friends who are idealistic, loving, deeply feeling, occasionally annoying, sometimes mistaken kids.

It’s not hard to imagine a version of this show that might’ve gotten that part right and still punted on the rest of it, though. There’s a way of imagining the actual work of the club as fairly little, mostly shaped by small-scale pitfalls and unfortunate domestic accidents. They’re just babysitters after all. The dramas of their lives are the kinds of stories too much fiction tends to treat as unimportant, often barely worth depicting: Dawn’s at a client’s house taking care of the kids, and one parent continually comes home over an hour late. A kid gets sick while Mary-Anne cares for her. Kristy doesn’t want to babysit for her soon-to-be stepfather. It’s the kind of stuff that can feel like tiny problems, minor obstacles in the grand scheme of things. As shaped by the show’s executive producer Rachel Shukert, though, The Baby-Sitters Club treats those stories the way they actually feel when you’re in the midst of them. They are huge. They are monumental.

Not all the stories and ideas are small ones either. Claudia’s elderly grandmother has a stroke, one of the plot points I remember very clearly from the books. As in Martin’s originals, the TV show’s Claudia is devastated; she loves her grandmother Mimi, but her parents and older sister don’t understand her at all, and without her grandmother, Claudia feels completely adrift inside her own house. The show follows that story closely, spending time on Claudia’s despair, her feelings of sadness and abandonment. But the TV series adds another layer to the story, one loosely adapted from elsewhere in the books but made much more personal on the show. After her stroke, Mimi loses her facility with English and is thrown back to her youth, repeating words and phrases in a mixture of English and Japanese that Claudia can’t understand. Her older sister, Janine, explains what’s happening — Mimi was in a Japanese internment camp as a child, and is reliving those traumatic memories.

The Netflix Baby-Sitters Club also covers the importance of gender affirmation for transgender kids, the loving but strained relationship between a Black daughter and her white father (especially on the topic of hair), the cruelty of economic inequality, the truly hard work of caring for children, and getting your period. For as gentle and adorable as the show is, believe me when I tell you that The Baby-Sitters Club goes surprisingly hard.

The series is fully committed to its combination of personal teenage trials and important large-scale ideas. It’s so committed, in fact, that by the time the club goes off to summer camp and Dawn and Claudia decide to foment a social uprising in protest of the camp’s unjust access to all the cool extracurriculars, I was thrilled and not at all surprised. It is a vision of The Baby-Sitters Club that smartly updates it for the world of 2020, without also sacrificing the innate warmth and optimism of the original books. The books I read as a kid were formulaic and they absolutely had flaws, but their unmistakable message was that these girls had power, real power and responsibility in their own small, suburban world. I’m so glad to see that theme return in the TV series, and to see it insist that big, universal ideas can be expressed in a lovely, comforting show about a group of girls who take babysitting jobs in their neighborhood.

The Baby-Sitters Club Is a Welcome Surprise & Utter Delight