‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ on Netflix will lift you out of quarantine doldrums
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I don’t know what I was expecting from a Netflix version “The Baby-Sitters Club,” of one of my favorite book series from childhood. Considering the track record of some of the best books of my youth being brought to screen (cough, “Artemis Fowl,” cough), I was bracing for the worst.
How, for instance, would they translate author Ann M. Martin’s original1980s and 90s books in 2020? Would they get actors who were actually middle-school-aged and skilled at acting? Would the often simple (but not simplistic) plots be replaced with “Riverdale”-like drama? Would the sense of joy and positivity be gone?
I needn’t have worried. As brought to life by creator Rachel Shukert (“GLOW,” “Supergirl”), “Baby-Sitters” is a near-perfect distillation of what made the book series sell millions of copies. The series (now streaming) is optimistic but not deluded, youthful but not juvenile and sweet but not mawkish. Its quintet of young actresses (the original four sitters and one mid-season addition) are talented beyond their years, but the dialogue never makes them sound like 40-year-old Hollywood scriptwriters.
It’s the rare kids’ show that manages to offer just as much for the child as the parent sitting next to them on the couch.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Gen X and Millennial touchstone novels, “Baby-Sitters” follows a group of four middle school girls, and sometimes other classmates, who run the titular sitting society in the fictional suburb of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. They meet three times a week and take calls for babysitting gigs. They are also the best of friends and adolescents going through struggles and change.
The series brings the young women to life in caring detail. There’s Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace), club founder and president, “norm-core,” bossy and occasionally selfish; stylish New Yorker Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph), boy crazy and afraid to reveal her diabetes diagnosis after being bullied; artistic and ecstatic Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), misunderstood by her grade-mongering parents.
Shy Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker), recast in the show as biracial, whose overprotective white father struggles with anxiety after the death of her mother; and Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez), an earthy California transplant who becomes the first new member of the club.
The best pop culture stories about children and teens understand that, though their problems and foibles seem trivial to adults whose middle school memories are fuzzy at best, in the throes of adolescence every test, every crush, every babysitting gig is of monumental importance.
“Baby-Sitters” gives gravitas as its sitters go through their individual episodes, tackling issues large and small. There’s the mom who is late to relieve the sitter, or a math quiz that must be aced to attend a Halloween dance. But in the Netflix interpretation there is also a babysitting client misgendered by others, a grandparent who suffers a stroke and a summer camp rife with inequality. Although the book’s classic telephone landline remains (the joke that explains it is apt), the content of the stories is not dated.
Like the books, most episodes are told from the perspective of one of the club members (a two-part season finale set at summer camp breaks the trend). The sensitivity and care with which the writers treat each girl’s inner monologue is moving. The adult characters (played by delightful guest stars Alicia Silverstone, Mark Feuerstein and Marc Evan Jackson, among others) are just as well-drawn as their offspring. They’re neither the distant authoritarians nor hacky stereotypes that often pop up in kids’ media.
If 2020 had gone the way we had planned, without a coronavirus pandemic, “Baby-Sitters” would have been a mid-summer delight between vacations, summer camp drop-off and the drone of regular work. But in the COVID-19 era, it is a restorative balm. It’s not just that the show is colorful, youthful and cheery. There are plenty of happy-go-lucky characters on TV. But rarely do we see the nuance of joy – the struggle to achieve it, the idea that someone else might be left out of it – portrayed so expertly, let alone told in stories about children.