Through these agonizing months of quarantine, I, like so many others, have watched a record amount of television. Yet somehow, even the best of it has failed to hold my attention, with each episode sliding unremarkably by—just as the grim, interminable days do. I began to fear that my TV-glutted brain was forever broken, but just when I thought all was lost, a show for tweens brought me back to life: Netflix’s bright, big-hearted reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club.
For the uninitiated, The Baby-Sitters Club is adapted from the wildly popular series of middle-grade novels by Ann M. Martin, begun in 1986, which spanned over 200 volumes by the time publication ceased in 2000. In the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea, twelve-year-old Kristy Thomas is inspired to team up with her friends to form a club of local babysitters; in the volumes to follow, the club members get into a number of misadventures and teachable moments while on the job in their picturesque suburban town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. I grew up on these high-spirited books, which center smart, ambitious girls in relatable stories about family, friendship, and self-knowledge, while refusing to candy-coat or condescend to an impressionable audience. In the capable hands of showrunner and writer Rachel Shukert (best known for producing GLOW), this reboot ushers the girls from their analog origins into the age of smartphones and social media, without losing any of the secret sauce that made the books so special.
The Baby-Sitters Club stars a cast of talented newcomers as the original Fab Four. Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace) is the practical, pushy founder and president of the Baby-Sitters Club, who chafes at her new blended family when her divorced mother (a terrifically cast Alicia Silverstone, graduated from teen queen to sitcom mom) remarries a wealthy, overeager businessman. Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), the club’s artistic and buoyant vice president, feels adrift in her overachieving family as she struggles in school. Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker), the club’s studious and shy secretary, has been reimagined as the biracial daughter of an overprotective white widower (The Good Place’s Marc Evan Jackson). Sophisticated Manhattan expat Stacey McGill is the club’s boy-crazy treasurer, whose shocking secret undergirds much of the season’s drama. As the ten episodes progress, the club expands to include Dawn Schafer, a SoCal transplant reimagined as a budding Latinx activist.
Smart updates to the source material place the girls in modern situations, though not simply for kicks; rather, each update enriches the characters Martin created. In one touching episode, shy Mary Anne overcomes her fear of talking to strangers while babysitting a transgender child, finding her voice during a high-stress situation when the child spikes a fever. Mary Anne calls 9-1-1, and as she awaits the child’s parents at the hospital, she summons the courage to speak out against the careless doctors who misgender her young charge. Meanwhile, the central conflict of Mary Anne’s life—helicopter parenting from her well-meaning but fearful father—has not changed, but in rewriting the character as biracial, this reboot deftly plumbs new depths about the difficult work of parenting, particularly for white parents of non-white children. Mr. Spier and Mary Anne are often at odds about the politics of her hair and clothes, drawing added richness from the tension and grief Martin wrote into their relationship.
Fans of the books will remember the emotional gut-punch of Claudia and Mean Janine, in which Claudia’s beloved grandmother, the only person in the Kishi family who truly understands Claudia, suffers a stroke and is rendered largely speechless; yet in this retelling, a confused and distraught Mimi is reduced to speaking only broken Japanese. Claudia’s sister Janine reveals a family secret to Claudia, sharing that as a result of the stroke, Mimi is reliving her traumatic childhood in a World War II-era Japanese internment camp, where she and her parents were held against their will for the early years of her life.
As the season progresses, with Claudia searching for a way to deepen the substance of her art, criticized by a teacher as simply surface-level, she draws on her grandmother’s harrowing childhood, researching Japanese internment camps and sketching portraits of children detained therein. To see a child grapple with inherited trauma on a show for tweens—and transform that pain into art, no less—is a groundbreaking thing. That meaning deepens in considering Claudia’s status as an iconic Japanese-American character, launched as she was into the mainstream when Japanese-American girls had scant few characters in popular culture in which they could see themselves.
Later in the season, in a bravura finale set at sleepaway camp, Dawn and Claudia team up to fight economic inequality and the carceral state, with Dawn organizing fellow campers in a protest against policies that prevent low-income campers from participating in expensive activities; meanwhile, Claudia fights the good fight from her cabin, where she’s been remanded by a draconian counselor. Yet for all of its winning moments of modern social conscience, the show doesn’t skimp on the timeless growing pains of girlhood that made the beloved books what they are, like crushes, conflicts between friends, and yes, getting your period.
Even with all the updated bells and whistles, perhaps the best thing about The Baby-Sitters Club is its worldview—one of warmth, empathy, and optimism. In an age of rampant corruption and bigotry, not to mention a global pandemic, this ten-episode diversion into Stoneybrook is like manna from heaven. This community-minded town is a neighborly place where almost everyone is compassionate, moral, and kind, and even the scant few who lack those qualities are shown the error of their ways. I’ll say this much: you can bet your bottom dollar that the people of Stoneybrook wouldn’t bat an eye about wearing their masks. The show foregrounds the responsibility of everyone in Stoneybrook to fulfill their responsibilities to the community, from delivering casseroles to the Kishi family after Mimi’s stroke to organizing an intimate meeting of parents after a rival club slanders a member of the BSC. These young babysitters–and their families–never lose sight of what we owe one another, whether it’s a favor, a listening ear, or an apology.
If you too have been stuck in the TV doldrums, give The Baby-Sitters Club a chance. Sure, the show is aimed at tweens, brimming with corny jokes and teachable moments, but it’s far from an after-school special–in fact, it’s infectiously sincere and earnest without being cloying. With personal and civic responsibility in short supply these days, we could all learn a thing or two from these twelve-year-old girls.
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