The new Baby-Sitters Club series is the best comfort food Netflix has to offer right now.
I was five years old, tagging along at an end-of-season party for my brother’s hockey team (the one year my brother ever played). It was a cool and wet summer day, driving us all inside, and driving the siblings of the players to the basement. I blindly followed around my sister — then 10 — and the coach’s eldest daughter, who indiscriminately put on a VHS. It was an episode of the 1995 TV series adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club. With no one my age to play with, I silently watched from start-to-finish, probably paying more attention than my sister and the other older girls. I was hooked.
Who did I like best? Claudia was the prettiest, but Dawn was the funniest. Kristy was clearly the smartest, but Mallory was the most different.
But the episode was over in 22 minutes, and I didn’t get to watch another one.
Over the next few years, I waited for the day when my sister — who was not a reader, but was a collector, and thus had nearly every issue of Ann M. Martin’s book series — to announce that she was passing her books along to me. In the second grade, when I officially graduated to “chapter books” without pictures, I started spending my lunch breaks in the library, devouring my way through Mallory and the Trouble With Twins (my first BSC book) one 35-minute lunch at a time. Eventually, the book collection migrated to my room. In the third and fourth grade, whenever we’d travel to visit family — my hometown had no mall and only had a secondhand bookstore — I’d be allowed to go to Cole’s to pick out a new Baby-Sitters Club book. In middle school, as I approached the age that the characters were, I started to grow self-conscious of my love of the books — especially when my more academic friends and their parents accused me of reading “trash” novels — but I held onto the books, loving and enjoying them in secret. I was less afraid to read the darker, edgier California Diaries in public, but behind closed doors, The Baby-Sitters Club still brought light into my life. I was a bully target — too geeky with too overprotective of parents for the popular kids, not serious enough for the smart kids — and was always on the outside with people my own age. I loved The Baby-Sitters Club because the girls were flawed. They were strange and they were, at times, obnoxious. But they were also great at what they did, and they were friends.
I longed for friends like Mary-Anne Spier, who could acknowledge that Kristy was bossy and overbearing but still love her. I wanted friends who could support my righteous causes from afar, even if they didn’t partake in them, like they did with Dawn. The Baby-Sitters Club taught me that acceptance and happiness did not hinge on perfection.
Four years ago, I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club Club, a comedy podcast by Jack Shepherd and Tanner Greenring which saw the two ex-Buzzfeeders read through the series and offer comedic, over-analytical takes on it. Through the podcast I found a community of fans — so-called Baby Nation — who had similar experiences to mine with the books. It can’t be overstated how valuable it was to find out, 20 years later, that I was not alone.
Now, a whole new generation gets to experience The Baby-Sitters Club with the new Netflix adaptation. The 10-episode series rolled out on the platform June 3 to rave reviews and a warm embrace from grown fans.
Not since The Great Canadian Baking Show has a series managed to captivate me so effectively without relying on emotionally exploitative suspense to do so.
Showrunner Rachel Shukert and her team have managed to both write in and write around new technology. The girls all have and use cell phones, but there are still justifiable reasons for Mary-Anne and Kristy to only communicate through their window flashlight routines (Mary-Anne can’t use her phone after certain hours). The girls could easily use social media to promote their club, but they realize that their best clients come from word-of-mouth recommendations and don’t want to open themselves up to the headaches (and potential danger) of using paid advertising to promote the club.
(Side note: When I took my Canadian Red Cross babysitting course in 2000, I was urged to not so much as advertise on a community bulletin board so as not to attract strangers, so I enjoyed that the current crop of sitters is also putting safety first).
Basically, the show puts out a small but efficient effort to explain why it’s not engaging in 21st century technology that would see the fabric of America’s favourite babysitters wholly changed. Sure, the club notes are now kept in a Google Doc and Mary-Anne manages a central electronic calendar, but those changes still allow the club to function more-or-less the way it was written all throughout Martin’s beloved series.
It’s well-cast — the actors actually look like middle-schoolers and the grown-ups are true to the characters that Ann M. Martin spent years creating. The obvious standout among the parents still can’t be overstated enough: Marc Evan Jackson truly is as good as Richard Spier as everyone says he is. Jackson, probably known best among millennial viewers as Kevin in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, certainly has carved out a niche for himself as a fastidious and no-nonsense type, but it works for Richard, who, over the course of nearly 200 books, rarely moved beyond his one-dimensional, nebbishy portrayal. Jackson’s interpretation is true to the character but also adds some understandable sensitivity to him; his moment with Mary-Anne in the car on Mary-Anne Saves the Day is enough to bring a tear to anyone’s eye, whether they had a good relationship with their dad, an awkward one or none at all.
Speaking of which, Malia Baker is one of the core cast standouts as Mary-Anne Spier. She’s one of the girls who had a distinct race lift in the series, and her portrayal is the perfect example of how the show modernizes its characters and concepts without straying even the slightest from Martin’s original vision. Mary-Anne may be a black girl, but her timid, sweet, self-doubting nature remains intact. I was never shy like Mary-Anne (I was a Mallory who longed to be a Claudia) but she was always my favourite as a young reader, and her books were the most interesting to me. I realized as an adult that this was because Mary-Anne seemed to embody social anxiety and stress management issues. Baker rolls that into her performance and is overall a bit less of a drag than book Mary-Anne but clearly possesses the same mix of insecurity and generosity.
I’d be remiss to not mention Baker and Jackson’s standout performance in Mary-Anne Saves the Day. This book was always a favourite of mine as a kid (again, Mary-Anne’s defaulting to non-confrontational passivity before eventually exploding in unattractive meltdowns really spoke to me). The episode has all of the same elements at its core: the BSC gets in a major fight (in the updated series, the fight is less of a full-on fracture and more of a collective turning on Mary-Anne), Mary-Anne meets her new friend Dawn (Xochitl Gomez, whose updated interpretation of Dawn is focused on all social justice, not just environmental justice) and she eventually has to come to the rescue of a baby-sitting charge with a dangerously high fever.
This is where the Shukert’s 21st century update of the franchise really pays off in a beautiful way. In the book, Mary-Anne’s charge is the insufferable Jenny Prezziosso. In the series, her charge is a new girl, Bailey. In her first meeting with Bailey, Mary-Anne discovers that Bailey, who appears to be no older than five, is trans. Everything from the way Mary-Anne comes to realize Bailey is trans to the way her narration confirms it and her subsequent treatment of Bailey is so appropriate, yet understated. Just as Martin’s books were fond of teaching moments, the show uses Bailey’s gender as one (when Mary-Anne takes Bailey to a hospital, she is briefly misgendered by the doctors before Mary-Anne takes them aside and calmly explains why they need to adhere to Bailey’s gender and pronouns). It does so without presenting it as a nuanced issue with more than one side. There’s no big explosion. Rather, it calmly treats it as a fact: Bailey is a girl, end of story. If anything, it’s very much a Mary-Anne way of handling the story.
It’s also the perfect example of how the essence of the story remains the same, but gives new fans something to cheer for. Mary-Anne Saves the Day was always about Mary-Anne learning to balance her sensitive nature while being more assertive when it’s needed. It just added another way for her to demonstrate sensitivity (I’ll also note one underrated aspect of The Baby-Sitters Club, which is that since its 1986 inception, it has always respected the autonomy and individualism of children, and actually depicted extremely healthy babysitting techniques that in retrospect reveal a lot about Martin’s values).
If we’re going to talk about emotional arcs, however, we can’t leave out Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace). The writing and portrayal of 2020 Kristy helps bring to life a character who at times was so Flanderized, so self-righteous and so unpleasant that it was difficult to remember that she was supposed to be a middle schooler. Grace embodies all of Kristy’s truths: she’s overbearing, she’s self-serious and she’s hot-tempered. But what Grace — and Shukert — manage to convey together is that many of Kristy’s worst qualities come from pain. Kristy balances a need to assert her independence and her imperviousness to pain with a deep inner questioning of why her father left her and her family, what she could have done differently and what will happen if she accepts Watson into her life. Even as the different characters take turns narrating each episode, Kristy’s journey is a through-line for the series; in Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls she’s still struggling to accept Watson in to her life. In Dawn and the Impossible Three her resentment over her father’s lack of effort boils over. Even in Kristy’s Big Day, when her mother marries Watson, it’s clear that Kristy’s issues aren’t fully resolved; she still shows some discomfort and trepidation about her new situation, but is at least eager to face it with her mother and see what happens.
Grace isn’t the only performer who helps to redeem an at-times insufferable character. Stacey (Shay Rudolph) and Karen Brewer (Sophia Reid Gantzert) have been toned down for the series. They’re still true to their characterizations — Stacey is smart, fashion-crazy and views herself as more of an adult than the rest of the girls, and Karen has a wild imagination and very set in her ways for a second-grader — but Shukert and her team have merely known when and what to dial back. Writers have the gift of history and hindsight here; they know that what was considered sophisticated for a pre-teen, or adorable and precocious for an elementary schooler, will not get the same reaction now. If anything, Karen’s imaginative stories play out much more humorously in a teleplay scenario than a novel scenario, and Stacey actually looking and sounding like a young teenager — instead of the 22-year-old models that art director Hodges Soileau seemed to depict on the book covers — make her much more of a relatable teen.
Other fun updates include: bringing back Esme Porter — also known as Morbida Destiny — and actually making her a “witch” as Karen claims. She’s actually a Pagan, and a relative of Dawn’s mother (apparently Shukert is the only person outside of Baby Nation to recognize that they have the same surname); Aya Furukawa’s smug portrayal of ‘mean’ Janine Kishi; and the show’s willingness to address one thing the series never did (periods).
Unlike other teen series on Netflix, The Baby-Sitters Club has a bright and lively colour palette, which boasts an unexpected cohesiveness that should be credited to series art director Alyssa King. The soundtrack is modern enough without feeling patronizing to younger audiences. The girls’ wardrobes, designed by Cynthia Ann Summers, are a perfectly updated take on one of the most entertaining aspects of the books.
It’s been an undeniably difficult year for young people, and numerous third- and first-party studies have shown that many of us are taking solace in scripted content and streaming. Some teen series, like 13 Reasons Why, have opted for a more cynical depiction of teenage “reality,” while other series on Netflix, like Queer Eye, have increasingly come under fire for glossing over reality a little too much. The Baby-Sitters Club is sweet, but it’s not marshmallow-sweet — there’s a surprising amount of substance here, one that leaves viewers satiated and motivated. It’s more like a big bowl of colourful, wholesome fruit. It’s sweet with substance.