“Stranger Things,” Netflix’s biggest hit to date, is a show about kids that trades heavily on 1980s era nostalgia. Success breeds imitation, and book adaptations are now one of the hottest commodities around. Enter Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club,” a series based on Ann M. Martin’s popular preteen books from the mid-1980s. (The first book, “Kristy’s Great Idea,” hit bookshelves in 1986.)
Adapted and updated for the modern era by writer Rachel Shukert (whose Netflix credits include the fantastic “GLOW”), “The Baby-Sitters Club” is a delightful little show, perfect for moms and daughters (and brothers and fathers too). It’s also a reminder that even though the world has changed drastically since the books first came out, some parts of growing up never change.
“The Baby-Sitters Club” is a delightful little show, perfect for moms and daughters (and brothers and fathers too).
One would have thought, looking at the source material, that “The Baby-Sitters Club” would only work as a period piece. The idea of kids babysitting other neighborhood kids feels almost too wholesome. “The Baby-Sitters Club” setup also relies on a lot of analog details — important emotional scenes happen while the club’s members sit around together in a room waiting for a landline to ring, misunderstandings require a lack of instant communication. Moreover, the girls are mostly innocent of media — these are not kids growing up with Instagram influencers or TikTok. It was one thing for “The Baby-Sitters Club” to be made into a movie in 1995, when the technological landscape was still reasonable close to the same. How can such a show work in 2020?
The answer, it turns out, is by being just as innocent as it ever was. Kristy (Sophie Grace) is inspired to start the club after her single mom (Alicia Silverstone) fails to find a sitter last minute. She teams up with her sheltered BFF Mary Anne (Malia Baker) and her too-cool-for-school artist friend Claudia (Momona Tamada), she knows they’ll say yes; because that’s how middle schoolers behave. Each is given a believable reason not to be very online for their age — Kristy because of money, Mary Anne because she’s sheltered, and Claudia because her older sister (known in the books as Mean Janine) is very online, and Claudia wants to be nothing like her. Only Stacey (Shay Rudolph), the new girl from New York City, remains tethered to social media. As a result, she gets howler lines about how “targeted social media ads” can help build their babysitting business. (Don’t worry. Sanity — and neighborhood flyers — win out over clicks.)
There are a few other clever workarounds, as well. There’s no website, because the entire premise is that parents don’t want to sign up for yet another subscription service. The landline is conceived as part of the plan because “no one ever answers their cellphone anymore.” And Claudia is explained as having a landline because Janine’s very online habit means their internet package came with it. The actual phone Claudia buys is the exact one from the books because she’s being ironically retro. Or as she puts it: “It’s iconic.”
Speaking of iconic and Claudia, back in the early 1990s when I was the targeted audience, it was a big deal that these otherwise white middle-class books included a Japanese American character. The show hasn’t changed that part, but it has quietly updated the rest of the cast to feel more in line with the multicultural ideals Claudia represented. Mary Anne is now biracial, giving an added layer of complexity to her father’s fearful overprotectiveness. California cool girl Dawn, who is the first recruit added to the growing business, has changed from a blonde surfer girl to Latinx, adding to her feeling that she doesn’t quite belong in this small town. In each case, these changes are approached with a great deal of thought.
Staying faithful to the novels’ ideals also means the show has stayed remarkably faithful to the stories themselves.
Staying faithful to the novels’ ideals also means the show has stayed remarkably faithful to the stories themselves. Fans may recognize each episode title is taken directly from the books themselves. Episode one, for instance is “Kristy’s Great Idea,” episode two is based on and named after the second book, “Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls.” Though the show doesn’t stick exactly to the same order as the books — and a few fan favorites are missing, like “Mary Anne and the Search for Tigger” — each story is based on one of the more famous installments of the franchise’s 100+ books, creating what should feel to older fans like a greatest hits package.
The key to all this lies as much in the actresses playing the core group as the scripts. Sophie Grace, who is a bit of a first among equals, plays Kristy exactly as she is on the pages, bossily insecure, and worried about her mother’s impending remarriage. She may be living in 2020, but her problems and her reactions to them feel timeless. Momona Tamada’s Claudia may have a few more pieces of tech than her 1980s version, but her conflicts with Janine are the same fights siblings have been having since the March sisters in “Little Women.”
That’s not to say the show is perfect. Much like the books, the idea of entrepreneurship as part of the American landscape is never treated as something the girls have to struggle for, and it’s amazing how nothing genuinely challenging ever happens. Also, episodes nine and ten are an oddly conceived two-parter that almost feels like a separate special tacked on last minute. But these are minor quibbles for a feel-good series that’s magically brought the book’s message to the 21st century. Female empowerment can still be found via friends, self-confidence, and one big idea. Babysitters: Assemble.