The Baby-Sitters Club Is the Only Pure Thing Left in This World

7 minute read

If you find it hard to believe that three whole decades have passed since 1990, I suggest cracking open a Baby-sitters Club book. In Ann M. Martin’s sprawling middle-grade series about girls in junior high who start their own baby-sitting service, the phones have cords, the sitters keep records in bubbly cursive, all shopping takes place at the mall and “a pink sweatshirt with sequins and a large purple parrot on the front” is the pinnacle of sophistication. Each novel is a time capsule of preadolescence untouched by social media or smartphones or Fortnite or the constant specter of school shootings. It was a more innocent time, one to which Martin (and the ghostwriters who authored later volumes) added an extra dose of sugary sweetness for the benefit of elementary schoolers eager to read about slightly older kids.

The Baby-sitters Club doesn’t seem like a franchise that could survive these cataclysmic times, when the President calls people mean names on Twitter as young people face threats from racist policing to climate crisis—and, since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned even friendly bedroom communities like the BSC’s fictional Stoneybrook, Conn. into ghost towns. So it’s a wonderful surprise that the new Baby-sitters Club, a 10-episode Netflix series due out July 3, isn’t an anachronism so much as a tonic. Helmed by first-generation fans Rachel Shukert (Glow) and Lucia Aniello (Broad City), who honed their voices telling lighthearted stories about women who have each other’s backs, the show strikes a shrewd balance between earnestness and humor, freshness and nostalgia, fidelity to Martin’s beloved characters and awareness of how much has changed since her books dominated girl culture at the end of the 20th century.

Unlike earlier adaptations—a short-lived 1990 HBO series and a 1995 movie, neither of which has aged well—the new Baby-sitters is a proper reboot, with an origin story millions of women in their 30s and 40s probably remember in detail but their daughters might not know. It all begins when seventh grader Kristy Thomas’ (Sophie Grace) single mom Elizabeth (Alicia Silverstone, lip-bitingly funny as ever) can’t find anyone to watch her youngest son. Teen sitters never pick up their cellphones. Internet-based babysitting services charge exorbitant fees. “Why is this so hard?” Elizabeth whines, adorably. “When I was a kid, my mother would just call some girl in the neighborhood on a landline. And she would answer, because it was part of the social contract.”

Soon, Kristy—a sporty tomboy whose ingenuity, bossiness, self-absorption and inexplicable fondness for turtlenecks make her a prototypical mini-entrepreneur—is pitching her best friend Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker) on what will go down in BSC lore as “Kristy’s great idea.” What if parents actually could call one phone number at a predetermined time, reach a whole roomful of responsible young women and nail down a sitter on the spot? It’s a smart way of justifying the seemingly obsolete conceit without which the show could not exist: club meetings, several evenings a week, where the girls cluster around a good old-fashioned landline to set up appointments, compare notes on clients and help each other through growing pains of all kinds.

Liane Hentscher/Netflix

Shukert and Aniello manage to update the characters without sacrificing their essences. While fuming over Elizabeth’s relationship with a rich guy, Kristy leans into #girlboss feminism. Mary Anne is still shy, with an overprotective single dad, but now she’s also biracial. Their neighbor and perennial BSC meeting host Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada) retains her artistic talents, academic struggles, secret sweet tooth and multigenerational household, complete with hilariously condescending older sister and adoring grandma; this time around, her Japanese-American heritage comes to the fore. While New York City expat Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph) still looks perfect, has secrets and obsesses over boys, her storyline now addresses the contemporary scourge of cyberbullying. Once a blonde treehugger, California transplant Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez) is now Latinx and knows how to wield terms like socioeconomic stratification. (Never mind that every family in Stoneybrook seems to have the money for sleep-away camp.)

This may all sound painstakingly woke on paper, but nothing feels forced about these updates. The main cast is spirited and authentic—Tamada and Grace are especially great—and they look like real tweens, not aspirational Barbies. Stoneybrook gains a thoroughly modern population, from the little trans girl who forms a bond with Mary Anne to an out-and-proud witch (though she prefers the title spiritual practitioner) who leads workshops in her backyard, without losing the tree-lined streets and stately Colonial homes that have always marked it as an all-American town. A standout episode scripted by The Wangs vs. the World author Jade Chang, in which Claudia enters an art contest and learns about her ailing grandmother’s childhood in a Japanese internment camp, develops into a moving representation of a young artist finding her creative voice.

The creators still find space to acknowledge the timeless middle-school growing pains for which the books have prepared so many younger kids: strict parents and absent parents and divorced parents, first kisses and first jobs and first periods. And they bring the same playful wit to these rites of passage that made their past projects so irresistible. Revisiting the older adaptations that I devoured as a kid—particularly the TV version—I was surprised at the extent to which saccharine dialogue and uneven performances rendered them unwatchable as an adult. Yet once I started the Netflix reboot, I found it hard to stop watching (in no small part because the familiar characters and cheerful tone felt so soothing at a time when comfort was in short supply). Shukert and Aniello have said that they want the show to have “multi-generational” appeal, and their referential comedy accomplishes it. There are Handmaid’s Tale jokes. In one scene, Kristy prepares to take out a rival baby-sitting service by reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. (The wearying trend of Netflix shows promoting other Netflix shows did, however, ruin any enjoyment I might’ve gotten out of a montage where the girls redecorate a room as a cover of the Queer Eye theme plays.)

Not every artifact of girlhoods past deserves to be resurrected for the current generation. Good riddance, Twilight trilogy, with your super-retrograde take on supernatural romance (but thanks for giving us Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart). Check your privilege with the doorman, upcoming HBO Max reboot of Gossip Girl. If the Sweet Valley High twins—a virgin/whore binary with long blonde tresses and size 6 figures—never give another imperfect reader a complex again, it’ll be no great loss. The Baby-sitters Club takes place in a younger, gentler universe, one ruled by friendship, responsibility and inclusion, not materialism or popularity politics. Though the some of the sitters may love clothes and boys, it’s their “big ideas” and special talents that really distinguish the BSC members. The characters’ appeal endures not in spite of their purity, but because of it.

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