Longtime fans of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club, a chapter book series whose late ‘80s/early ‘90s aesthetic is so iconic Scholastic sells a tin-boxed set of original covers, will be understandably skeptical of Rachel Shukert’s upcoming Netflix adaptation. It seems impossible, after all, that anyone could pluck Kristy, Mary-Anne, Claudia, Stacey and Dawn from their perch in Claudia’s pre-Y2K bedroom, drop them square in the age of Instagram, and not lose something in the translation. I mean, the whole idea behind the Baby-Sitters Club—five girls gathering around a landline phone for half an hour, once per week, to field neighborhood baby-sitting requests as a quasi-socialist collective—is just so deeply analog. And 2020? It’s just so… not.
Well, I am happy to report: Skeptics need not fear. As clever, tender, and earnest as you remember The Baby-Sitters Club books to have been whenever you first read them, Shukert’s vision more than rises to the challenge. Between her confident translation of Martin’s original characters, the natural-but-goofy cinematic language brought to the table by Lucia Aniello and a raft of other (mostly female) directors, plus the endless charm of the series’ young core cast, this newest adaptation is a dream. Like its namesake, The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix edition) is funny, sweet, and emotionally complex. Just as importantly, though, it implicitly understands the ways in which Kristy’s retro baby-sitting club business model is a perfect analog solution to a whole sea of problems caused by digital technology(/the gig economy)’s stranglehold over modern society.
To wit: It’s not even five minutes into “Kristy’s Great Idea” before Alicia Silverstone—here playing Elizabeth Thomas, single mom to soon-to-be-BSC-President Kristy (Sophie Grace)—finds herself at her wit’s end after she wastes a whole evening trying and failing to secure a last-minute sitter for Kristy’s little brother without having to fork over $80 to renew her off-brand Care.com subscription, or hack some kind of hurricane alert to send to high schoolers’ phones to get them to just pick up. “When I was a kid,” she vents to Kristy over a pile of half-chewed pizza crusts after coming up completely empty handed, “my mom would just call some girl in the neighborhood—on a landline—and she would answer! Because it was part of the social contract!!”
Yes, that’s right—the old when I was your age grumble merged with the internet’s favorite we live in a society! lament, retooled to take on the maddening riddle that is modern child care.
And you know what? It totally works! As Kristy rightly intuits, the slight inconvenience of having to plan your childcare needs out far enough in advance to be able to hit a local baby-sitting collective’s single Tuesday evening meeting time is more than made up for by the psychic relief of knowing that a dependable group of neighborhood tweens, whose parents you’re familiar with and whose basic “keep the kids safe and entertained” services come far cheaper than the average rates set by professional gig economy caregivers, are never more than a single phone call away. Or, as Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Watson (a delightfully dorky Mark Feuerstein), exclaims after Kristy begrudgingly explains the club’s broad outline: “As a businessman, and as a dad… I think it’s genius!”
As for the tween sitters, themselves—well, anyone who remembers being 13 likely already knows this. But having a reason to gather with friends you might not otherwise spend time with outside of school, working together to build something of real value, turns out to be no less meaningful for kids today than it was 34 years ago when the O.G. Kristy Thomas first had her titular Great Idea. If anything, it’s more meaningful now, when kids are as likely to be spending time together over social media than they are IRL, and even more likely still to have schedules so jam-packed with sports, tutoring, and other extracurriculars that they don’t have a moment to themselves until it’s time for bed. At the beginning of “Kristy’s Great Idea,” only Kristy and her BFF/nextdoor neighbor Mary-Anne (Malia Baker) are out-of-school friends; their other neighborhood friend, Claudia (Momona Tamada), drifted away at the start of middle school once she got tied up in art clubs and grew more interested in “boys and clothes” than the other two. By the end of the episode, though, all three are back to hanging out, and have even made a new friend—New York transplant Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph)—in the bargain. By the time Dawn (Xochitl Gomez) shows up in “Mary-Anne Saves the Day,” the bonds the girls have formed outside of class have become the primary emotional forces in their lives, their ability to talk things over and work things out in person making those bonds stronger every day. It’s a dynamic readers of the original series will already be plenty familiar with, but to see it accomplished here with such panache—making a sincere case for retro in-person connection, without casting any malice on the digital ties that keep those connections flexible between IRL hangs—is a real treat.
As noted above, The Baby-Sitters Club’s five young leads truly carry the series, grounding characters that could easily turn into broad types and making them each feel complicated and awkward and real. Grace’s Kristy stands out, her tightly-strung bossiness palpable even in something as basic as how rigidly she holds her shoulders when anyone dares to suggest they might know better than her, or how she winces at every perceived slight like it’s a physical blow. But just as much specific praise could be doled out to the rest of the girls. Most critical, though, is their chemistry as a fivesome, which has to support inherently unequal levels of familiarity at the start, but which then has to grow organically into something tight-knit and whole by the time they take off for a long summer with mismatched cabin assignments. The five girls accomplish this feat of cinematic bonding so deftly that by the time Dawn is organizing a lie-in (to protest Claudia’s unfair banishment to her cabin for having started a secret forest art class for campers not wealthy enough to afford official supplies), you’ll be forgiven for mistaking their growing bond over protesting socioeconomic inequality as the latest flag planted in a real, if still fairly new, friendship.
That said, everyone in the cast is charming. In a move key to getting parents of the series’ core demographic engaged enough to sit down and watch with their kids, all the adult actors involved are genuine home runs. In addition to Silverstone and Feuerstein, Marc Evan Jackson is right at home as Mary-Anne’s anxious widower dad, Takayo Fischer glows as Claudia’s doting grandmother, Jessica Elaina Eason finds the perfect balance between whimsy and responsibility as Dawn’s divorced mom, and Karin Kornoval crackles as the Watsons’ witchy next door neighbor.
The rest of the under-21 cast is just as excellent. Kristy’s three brothers (Benjamin Goas, Ethan Farrell and Dylan Kingwell) and Claudia’s, Stacey’s and Mary-Anne’s canonical crushes (Bodhi Sabongui, Mason McKenzie and Rian McCririck), especially, bring a wholesome kind of boy energy to the equation, with Sabongui’s morose teen artist shtick standing out as an especially silly highlight. The real headliners, though, are Claudia’s and Kristy’s spectacularly weird sisters, the college-aged Janine (Aya Furukawa) and the seven-year-old Karen (Sophia Reid-Gantzert), whose line readings are so universally eccentric and inspired, it’s almost alarming. (“Should we close her eyes?” a mystified Kristy asks as she sits down to play out a doll wake upon sitting for Karen for the first time. “No,” Karen declares, unblinking, her doll’s coffin open between them. “It’s dark enough in the grave. Goodbye, Krakatoa.” And that’s just Episode 1! It’s too much!!)
Having such a solid cast is great, of course, but it wouldn’t mean much without equally solid writing for them to work with. Happily, with a room staffed by writers—again, mostly women—both completely new to the game and hailing from projects like GLOW, Younger and even BoJack Horseman, both the quality and the narrative content of the scripts are higher than most adult audiences will be anticipating—think more Andi Mack or Never Have I Ever than Hannah Montana or Just Add Magic. The dialogue is consistently sharp, but even more compellingly, many of the discrete plot points that are the focus of both individual episodes and season-long arcs are startlingly—if never showily—progressive: Mary-Anne’s victory standing up for a new sitting charge in “Mary-Anne Saves the Day” shifting from basic medical advocacy to demanding hospital staff stop misgendering a scared little girl; Janine filling Claudia in (in “Claudia and Mean Janine”), on their grandmother’s childhood in a Japanese internment camp and the incomprehensibility of the fact that the same kind of cruelty is still being perpetrated by America today; the girls’ frank conversation about menstruation in “Kristy’s Big Day.” Even Mary-Anne’s new friend at the beach talking casually about the boy he had a crush on at camp stakes out new territory for a show like The Baby-Sitters Club. To be fair, though, The Baby-Sitters Club, in its original version, always had a progressive streak—most notably in Stacey’s diabetes and Dawn’s vegetarianism—so it’s ultimately not surprising that Shukert’s version would update that streak to better reflect the times.
Smartly, one thing Shukert doesn’t update in this adaptation are the structural elements most signature to the original series. Of the ten episodes the comprise Season 1, the first eight mirror their chapter book counterparts, alternating between the five core sitters’ perspectives, with two episodes each being told from Kristy, Claudia and Stacey’s points of view, and one each from Mary-Anne and Dawn’s. The two-part season finale, meanwhile, mirrors the super-sized Super Special books that functioned, in the original, as a series within a series, taking the girls away from their baby-sitting duties and letting them share the narrative focus equally. For readers, these Super Specials were objects of intense anticipation; for viewers, following Elizabeth and Watson’s big wedding celebration in Episode 8, “Welcome to Camp Moosehead” (Parts 1 & 2) caps off what was already a narratively complete season in the most emotionally satisfying way.
Unless filming for an as-yet-unannounced Season 2 had already wrapped before the pandemic hit, the straight line between where “Welcome to Camp Moosehead” leaves off and whatever eighth grade adventures might find Stoneybrook, Connecticut’s premier Baby-Sitters Club next grows fuzzier by the day. (Time, alas, makes teenagers of us all.) Should the pop culture fates conspire in our favor, though, this will be just the first of many clever and tender seasons of The Baby-Sitters Club to come. If that ends up being the case, though, I do have one request: More Kid Kits. Always more Kid Kits. Also, Claudia? Feel free to pass along any styling tips you might have to spare. As it turns out, this Mary-Anne-with-Dawn-ascendant still dreams of pulling off a wardrobe like yours, even decades removed from having pre-teen classmates to impress…
The Baby-Sitters Club premieres Friday, July 3 on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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