Kristy’s Great Idea, the first novel in Ann M. Martin’s long-running, mega-selling The Baby-Sitters Club series, was published in 1986. In it, seventh grader Kristy recruits best friend Mary-Anne, their estranged friend Claudia, and new girl Stacey to start a business to fill childcare gaps in their suburban Connecticut town. They post fliers around the neighborhood, and use Claudia’s bedroom as their headquarters, since she has a phone line in there. Not much had to change for the 1995 movie (which featured a young Rachael Leigh Cook as Mary-Anne), since cell phones and the Internet hadn’t yet grown pervasive enough to supplant the analog methods Kristy dreamed up in the first book.
Netflix’s new The Baby-Sitters Club series is set in the present day(*), but Kristy (Sophie Grace), Mary-Anne (Malia Baker), Claudia (Momona Tamada), and Stacey (Shay Rudolph) still rely on fliers and word of mouth for their marketing, and they still use a landline, albeit one Claudia’s family only got as a throw-in to their internet package. The retro nature of their business is presented as part of its charm (along with some brief exposition about how the girls are technically too young to have Instagram accounts), since it will appeal to middle-aged parents like Kristy’s harried mom, Elizabeth (Alicia Silverstone), who can recall a similar lo-fi system in place when their own parents needed someone to sit for them at the time Martin’s original books were published. Observing the kitschy transparent corded phone Claudia bought on Etsy for the endeavor, the practically-minded Kristy says, “It’s 25 years old.” To which her more artistic pal Claudia replies, “It’s iconic.”
(*) Give or take a pandemic that would make baby-sitting unsafe for all involved.
The series, adapted by GLOW writer Rachel Shukert, definitely views Martin’s stories and characters as iconic. (Even the names of the kids for whom the Club sits are mostly taken straight from the books.) But, like Claudia’s phone, the Netflix version of Baby-Sitters Club neatly straddles the line between old and new. The show offers clear, timeless storytelling and lessons about friendship and growing up, but it’s also contemporary in its interests in a way that enhances the source material rather than undermining it.
In the Eighties, it was a big deal that Claudia was Japanese-American at a time when there weren’t many Asian characters in kids’ books. Now, the group is even more diverse: Mary-Anne is biracial, while the Club’s first recruit, Dawn (Xochitl Gomez), is Latinx. The show doesn’t delve much into their ethnicities (Mary-Anne’s white widower father, Richard, is played by Marc Evan Jackson from Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place), but the group feels more modern and authentic than if it was just Claudia and four white girls. And the series is casually but effectively woke in lots of other ways. Dawn’s parents, we learn, divorced after her father came out of the closet, and in a later episode, a new friend of Mary-Anne’s mentions a boy he once had a crush on. The usually shy-to-a-fault Mary-Anne learns to speak more forcefully while on an emergency room visit with one of her babysitting charges, a trans girl whom the doctors keep misgendering. Claudia learns about her beloved grandmother’s stint in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and she and Dawn lead a protest about income inequality at the summer camp all five girls attend in the two-part season finale.
In some cases, these details are significant pieces of the story, with the emergency room scene being one of the season’s emotional high points. Just as often, though, they’re simply part of the rich tapestry Shukert is weaving from the strands Martin gave her, exploring what makes each girl tick and what being part of this group means to them. We quickly understand the reasons Kristy and Claudia drifted apart, and why Kristy fears Dawn may be replacing her as Mary-Anne’s best friend. Stacey has a secret she’s keeping from the other girls, but she’s also boy-crazy in a way that exasperates Mary-Anne when they’re paired together for a week-long trip as mother’s helpers. There’s also some parental drama — Richard has romantic history with Dawn’s mother Sharon (Jessica Elaina Eason), while Kristy isn’t wild that her mom is marrying the wealthy Watson Brewer (Mark Feuerstein) — but all of it is there to enhance our understanding of what the girls are going through at this complicated age, rather than a distraction to suck up to grown-ups in the audience. (Though there is a wink to Silverstone’s own adolescent screen history when Kristy assures us in voiceover that her mom isn’t “completely clueless.”)
In general, Baby-Sitters Club sticks out compared to so many other Netflix series about adolescents that are either geared largely for adults (Big Mouth) or at least for a demo a bit older than their main characters (Stranger Things). It’s sweet, and honest, and nice, in a way that feels just as refreshing as the girls’ old-fashioned business model. Since they’ve read many of the books, I watched the season with my kids, one of whom proved a tougher audience than me. My teenage daughter took more issue with some of Shukert’s adaptation choices, both how some of the adults are characterized, and particularly how prominent the bossy Kristy is on the show versus on the page. Each book is told from the point of view of a different character. The episodes tend to start out that way, but they’re ultimately much more about the whole ensemble, and Kristy’s controlling nature comes up a lot in how she interacts with both her friends and her mom. (My daughter’s tl;dr review: “Kristy’s definitely bossy in the books, but in the show, she can be just flat-out mean.”)
I may just have more tolerance for protagonists with antiheroic tendencies — particularly when they’re kids still capable of maturing and learning — and found this take on The Baby-Sitters Club a welcome blend of nostalgia and modernity, of something geared for kids but that parents can enjoy with them, and of the many exhilarating highs and mortifying lows of this precarious moment of growing up.
Netflix is releasing The Baby-Sitters Club on July 3rd. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.