Netflix Keeps the Magic of ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ Intact for Its Updated and Fun Revival
There is a timeless quality to heartfelt literature that gains a cult following among the middle school crowd, at least when it’s done well. The best books give young readers a fantasy about how adventurous they wish their lives could be, while having just enough of real life to feel familiar. Netflix captures this spirit in “The Baby-Sitters Club,” an adaptation of the beloved Ann M. Martin books published between 1986 and 2000. Martin’s 36 novels of the series have sold 176 million copies, so obviously they struck deep into a millennial chord. Now, for the streaming era, Netflix turns Martin’s characters into updated kids growing up in a digital world while still facing the eternal hassles of pre-teen life.
As in the books, the series takes place in the fictional suburban neighborhood Stoneybrook, where Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace) lives with mom Elizabeth Thomas-Brewer (Alicia Silverstone) and brothers. Kristy is known for having a strong will, preferring to pound you down verbally in an argument. This applies to when Elizabeth starts dating a wealthier businessman who Kristy detests. But inspiration strikes one evening when Elizabeth somehow can’t get anyone in the house to watch over the youngest of the kids. Kristy recruits her friends, Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph) and Mary-Anne Spier (Malia Baker) to form a “Baby-Sitters Club.” With sitters apparently in low supply around town, Kristy figures they can monopolize this particular market. The friends begin spreading out a number and soon start getting gigs. But their club will clash with personal conflicts that threaten their friendships, kept secrets, sudden rivals and inevitable crushes.
Ann M. Martin’s books, known by fans as “BSC,” inevitably inspired media adaptations as soon as they became enormous hits. HBO and Nickelodeon ran their own series in 1990 and a feature film was released in 1995. This Netflix edition overseen by showrunners Rachel Shukert, who was one of the key minds behind “GLOW,” and Lucia Aniello who produced “Broad City,” loses none of the spirit of its source material and simply adapts it to the 2020s. Millennials tuning in will smile however at certain winks, like Kristen and the gang deciding to use a transparent landline phone that glows when it runs to take client calls. For them it’s an object from ancient history.
The pastel aesthetic never leaves room for any truly dark themes. This is a feel-good series where saying “I’m sorry” truly does fix everything. But now the story elements are fine tuned for the Instagram age. Claudia feels the pressure for perfection from her Asian family, and is intimidated by an older sister who is a tech wizard now decked like a professional gamer in front of her plethora of gadgets. Stacey has just moved in from Manhattan and lies in order to skip the club’s first babysitting job. It turns out her family moved to flee the aftermath of a video that went viral showing Stacey experiencing a diabetic seizure at her old school. A new student named Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez), a Latinx from California, moves in and starts teaching Mary-Anne about shifts in gender norms and vegan food. It’s an update for the old Dawn who used to be a devoted environmentalist with a hippie vibe. This Dawn is more about bringing understanding of others to the group when facing a difficult adult or baby. “The Baby-Sitters Club” throws in intelligent side details for its audience to ponder, for example when a rival babysitter’s group emerges to challenge the Club, Kristy sits down to read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
Never too pretentious however, there’s much in “The Baby-Sitters Club” that is simple, warmhearted fun while dabbling in mature themes. Every character in the Club gets at least one episode to narrate a bit about themselves. Aside from the rivalry with another babysitting group and a season finale about the girls going to camp and engaging in “revolution,” the conflicts the club members face are very down to earth. Kristen dreads Elizabeth’s planned wedding to Watson (Mark Feuerstein), who has money which becomes Kristen’s sole explanation for why this is even happening. One memorable episode has to do with Mary-Anne feeling the overbearing pressure of a hyper-protective dad who puts her back on a small flip phone and complains to other parents if anyone makes fun of Mary-Anne, who then has to walk into the school cafeteria to scolding faces. But her father is a widower, and this is how he channels his love for a daughter who is all he has left.
There is no big cliffhanger ending to season one, instead after an uprising of campers and a bout with poison ivy, the Baby-Sitters Club recruit two new friends into the group. As with the books fans will no doubt then anxiously await the next round of mini-adventures. “The Baby-Sitters Club” revives a classic from the last decade of the last century, giving it the right attitude for today while never losing what makes any sincere tale of growing up relatable to all generations.
“The Baby-Sitters Club” season one premieres July 3 on Netflix.