It’s rare to see a TV show dedicate itself so fiercely to the inner lives of young girls. And it’s even rarer to see it executed as well as the new Netflix adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club, which uses its premise to launch a charming collection of characters, brought together ostensibly for business purposes, but reminding us that friendship can create whole new families.
For the record, I am reviewing this show as someone who was a fan of the original Ann M. Martin series: Decades before I discovered that memorizing the names of TV episodes could eventually become a job skill, I memorized the titles of Baby-Sitters Club books. I owned probably dozens at one point, reading and rereading in between Sweet Valley High and Beverly Cleary novels; growing up with the Baby-Sitters Club books meant growing up with flawed but wonderful big sisters, and to this day I find it a bit hard to comprehend the idea that Kristy, Mary-Anne, Stacey, Dawn, and Claudia are, on those well-thumbed pages, only 13 years old (while I have gotten significantly older).
However, it was surprisingly easy to detach from my preteen memories of the books and embrace how creator Rachel Shukert, whose previous credits include Glow and Supergirl, has updated the concept for a modern audience, without losing sight of its original charms. (She even found a way to justify why a 13-year-old girl in the year 2020 would have a landline, which is frankly impressive.) The premise is thus: Kristy (Sophie Grace) is a middle schooler with business sense, so when she sees her mother Elizabeth (Alicia Silverstone) scramble for a babysitter one night for her younger brother, Kristy realizes that the adults of her small Connecticut town could use a service where with just one call, they could reach several reliable babysitters.
Thus, Kristy assembles her friends for the titular club, including shy but sweet Mary-Anne (Malia Baker), artsy Claudia (Momona Tamada), sophisticated Stacey (Shay Rudolph), and California transplant Dawn (Xochitl Gomez). Together, they weather the troubles that come with trying to make a business out of wrangling other peoples’ children, while also dealing with their own issues: overprotective or absent parents, medical issues, and popularity (or lack thereof).
It’s a great framework for telling stories about girls at a very specific and pivotal moment in their lives, and the show does so while putting in serious elbow grease to make sure that these characters are richly developed. A popular idea connected to many TV shows about female friendship is the idea of identification: Are you a Carrie or a Samantha? A Buffy or a Willow? But with The Baby-Sitters Club, especially in the hands of Shukert and her writers, it’s almost impossible to play the Kristy-or-Mary-Anne game, because all five of the core characters are such unique individuals, given strengths and weaknesses that make it impossible to boil them down to archetypes. Kristy is a tomboy, but that doesn’t mean she can’t like dresses. Claudia struggles academically but is a wonderful artist. Mary-Anne might be shy, but she’s confident in her talents. And they all come to life with sparkling wit and serious charm.
In Martin’s books, Claudia was the only character whose ethnicity was specified as Japanese — who had such a profound impact on an entire generation of Asian-Americans that Netflix will be releasing a documentary about her. But the show has made its casting even more inclusive in terms of ethnicity, and casting directors Danielle Aufiero and Amber Horn should take a very big bow for assembling an incredible cast of young people, who bring a naturalism to the screen that sometimes professional child actors can’t escape. Tamada as Claudia and Grace as Kristy in particular stand out for how they feel incredibly committed to their roles without ever feeling like performers.
As for the adult actors, Mark Feuerstein continues to deliver big “hey, he seems like a nice guy” energy and Silverstone offers up a very poignant reminder of how charming she can be (though it’s always a bit disconcerting to see one of your teen idols play the mom of teenage children, something I know Molly Ringwald fans have been grappling with for the last decade or so). Another pivotal adult role is the wonderful Takayo Fischer as Claudia’s grandmother Mimi, while Marc Evan Jackson finds a new jittery dimension to his trademark deadpan, and Tami Sagher comes in to steal numerous scenes of the season finale two-parter.
Appreciating what Shukert has done in adapting Baby-Sitters Club as a TV show goes beyond just “oh, if you grew up with the books, you’ll like the show.” It goes beyond “sure to charm girls of that age.” Yes, it occasionally tips its hat to its specific target audience, but these 10 episodes present a richly detailed, nuanced portrait of what it’s like to be a young woman, and it deserves than better to be written off as “girl TV.” The endless number of movies and TV shows made about boys under the age of 15 have never been treated in the same way, irrespective of their quality, and it does a disservice to this very good series, full of life, humor, and heart. The Baby-Sitters Club might be a nostalgia play in some ways, but as an entertainment journalist who’s had to spend the last five years paying an awful lot of attention to Stranger Things, I would be quite happy if this show got even one 18th of the same consideration.
The Baby-Sitters Club doesn’t yell about gender equality, but that’s okay because I’m here to do it. It’s honestly rare to watch a show and not just feel fully confident about being able to recommend it to anyone, regardless of gender or age, but say that it should be watched by everyone. Young women deserve to be taken seriously. And so does this show.
The Baby-Sitters Club Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.