One week of this miserable spring and summer was dominated by one TV show. Before watching The Baby-Sitters Club, a Netflix adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s popular middle-grade novel series, I had to watch other shows, meet deadlines, wash laundry, and feed my kids. The show’s ten episodes, all of which premiered on July 3rd, were the most relaxing and enjoyable television experience I’ve had in recent months.
I was sceptical about the idea of adapting the series. I, like many other nine-year-olds in 1994, was briefly and intensely obsessed with books. The characters were vividly drawn, distinct, and distinct, and their concerns were frequently simple but profoundly felt. The world of The Baby-Sitters Club was simple, and challenges were usually, but not always, surmountable. The protagonists, a group of self-assured, introspective middle school girls (and one male!) were dealing with health issues and family strife. They were entrusted with significant responsibilities and occasionally made fatal mistakes. I remember Claudia breaking her leg, Stacey’s secret being revealed, Jessi learning ASL to babysit for a family with a deaf child, and Kristy negotiating her parents’ divorce.
I approached a remake of The Baby-Sitters Club with the same scepticism as anyone who enjoys something and then learns that it will be remade. I was worried that the show would fall into the TV trap of making the heroes appear implausibly old, even though they are supposed to be 13 years old. What does The Baby-Sitters Club look like now that these kids all have cell phones? In general, I was worried about my mood. It has an almost contradictory tone, resembling a dizzying, exhilarating seriousness. How does that look on the screen? It would have been terrible if the programme had been unthinkingly lovely, but it would have been even worse if it had been distant.
I was initially swayed by the cast. Club president Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace) is authoritative, well-intentioned, and somewhat self-centered in her new television incarnation. Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada) is an optimist, a creator, and an outcast within her own family. Shay Rudolph’s character, Stacey McGill, is refined, self-conscious, and obsessed with men. Mary-Anne Spier (Malia Baker) has been rewritten as the mixed-race Black daughter of her white widower father (Marc Evan Jackson). The adult cast is equally strong, with Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mother surprising me with her casting in the first episode. As any reader is aware, the group expands to include new members, most notably Dawn Schafer, a newcomer to the proto-socialist movement (Xochitl Gomez). They are a believable group of friends in middle school who are idealistic, caring, intensely feeling, occasionally obnoxious, and occasionally mistaken.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of this show that got that section right but not the rest. There is a temptation to believe that the club’s actual work is minor, influenced primarily by minor setbacks and unlucky household incidents. Finally, they’re just babysitters. The dramas of their lives are the kinds of stories that far too much fiction dismisses as insignificant and frequently dismisses as unworthy of depiction. Dawn is caring for a client’s children at their home, and one parent consistently arrives home more than an hour late. While Mary-Anne is caring for her, a child becomes ill. Kristy does not want to babysit for her upcoming stepfather. These issues may appear insignificant and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The Baby-Sitters Club, as envisioned by the show’s executive producer, Rachel Shukert, depicts these stories as they truly feel when you’re immersed in them. They are enormous. They are massive.
Not all stories and ideas are small, either. Claudia’s elderly grandmother has a stroke, which I recall vividly from the books. Claudia is distraught in the television show, as she is in Martin’s originals; she adores her grandmother Mimi, but her parents and elder sister do not understand her, and without her grandmother, Claudia feels completely lost within her own home. The programme closely follows this story, which focuses on Claudia’s misery, her feelings of sadness and abandonment. The TV series, on the other hand, adds another layer to the plot, one that is based on other parts of the books but is made much more personal on the show. Mimi loses her English proficiency after her stroke and is thrown back to her childhood, repeating words and phrases in a mix of English and Japanese that Claudia cannot understand. Janine, Mimi’s older sister, explains the situation: Mimi was a child in a Japanese internment camp, and she is having terrible flashbacks.
The Netflix Baby-Sitters Club also explores the importance of gender affirmation for transgender children, the loving but strained relationship between a Black daughter and her white father (particularly in terms of hair), the cruelty of economic inequality, the arduous nature of child care, and menstruation. Believe me when I say that The Babysitters Club is shockingly intense for such a sweet and adorable show.
The series is completely dedicated to its blend of personal adolescent challenges and important broad concepts. I am both happy and unsurprised when the club departs for summer camp and Dawn and Claudia decide to incite a social uprising in protest of the camp’s unfair access to all the cool extracurriculars. It is a reimagining of The Baby-Sitters Club that intelligently adapts it for the world of 2020 while retaining the original books’ inherent warmth and optimism. My childhood books were formulaic and certainly flawed, but the clear message was that these girls had real power and responsibility in their own small suburban world. I’m thrilled to see this topic return to the television series, and to see it assert that large, global issues can be communicated in a charming, cosy show about a group of local girls who babysit.