I’m about as far from the show’s intended demographic as a person can get, but “The Baby-Sitters Club” is yet another reminder of the lucky life of a critic, who gets to watch everything and discover the unexpected trove of kindness and spirit seen here. The women in my life — especially those friends who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s reading the 2oo-plus novels in the original book series conceived by Ann M. Martin — are way, way ahead of me on this: “The Baby-Sitters Club,” which has sold more than 180 million paperbacks and was previously adapted into a short-lived TV series and a 1995 movie, was never only about babysitting.
It’s an entire ethic, impressively built on the tenet that we are, each of us, becoming a better and more responsible person every day. How the books and now this series are able to do this without seeming saccharine, preachy or otherwise Disneyfied is part of why “The Baby-Sitters Club” is such a watchable treat. Not only do things generally work out for these girls, it works out because they work at it.
Within its opening minutes, one cannot help but groove on the show’s welcoming nature, as a seventh-grader named Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace) sees how desperate her single mom (Alicia Silverstone) is to find a last-minute sitter for her little brother. Kristy hatches a plan to start a full-service babysitting partnership in idyllic Stoneybrook, Conn. She recruits her best friend, Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker), their budding-artist friend, Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada) and the new girl at school, Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph). Later they are joined by another new girl, Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez).
The characters all hew to the archetypes Martin originally set forth, in that Kristy is bossy and sometimes impetuous. Mary Ann is shy but wise. Claudia’s creativity is at odds with her parents’ expectations. And Stacey just wants a fresh start after a disastrous viral video incident at her old school in Manhattan.
Showrunner Rachel Shukert (whose TV work includes “GLOW”) and executive producer Lucia Aniello (“Broad City”) clearly want nothing more than to do right by the books they loved as girls, while carefully steering “Baby-Sitters Club” toward a thoughtfully conceived Gen-Z upgrade.
That naturally means a stronger emphasis on the club’s diversity — as well as that of their Stoneybrook universe — not just in terms of color or ethnicity, but a broader sense of community and dignity. These babysitters, as well as the tykes they care for, are a new breed. When one client’s son prefers dresses over jeans, plays princess and refers to herself as a girl, this Baby-Sitters Club is not only equipped to relate to her, they are also more chill. That old “BSC” magic kicks in, as a viewer of any age finds characters to emulate.
And although they’re as wired and Instagram-dependent as their peers, these girls honor their predecessors by choosing an analog approach to business, circulating paper fliers in the neighborhood and directing all calls from clients to a landline phone in Claudia’s bedroom (it came free with the family’s Internet service, she explains).
It isn’t long before a rival group of high-schoolers try to steal the club’s idea, availing themselves of social networks and online advertising campaigns. The show’s unambiguous response to this is also its only slightly off note, conveying that these savvy teens are somehow more shallow — so tech-obsessed that they don’t pay enough attention to the children they’re supposed to be watching.
The neighbors eventually come to prefer Kristy’s club, but the show never quite reconciles its place in 2020. Is it just pure fantasy to imagine that 12- and 13-year-old girls are still available to babysit? That they so easily come and go between houses? And that today’s hypervigilant parents will hire them? Or has this notion lapsed into a fantasy that still includes paper routes and boys who mow lawns?
As their business takes off and expands, the girls are launched on the real objective here, which is to introduce them to life’s many lessons. Though they strive to be mature, they are as susceptible as anyone to hormonal crushes, rejection and tween angst. Their parents are entering relationships (in Kristy’s mother’s case, headed toward marrying a wealthy neighbor, to her daughter’s chagrin) or grieving divorces and other losses. Peers at school can sometimes be mean; and often there are conflicts within the Baby-Sitters Club itself.
None of this would be effective — or as worth watching — without the show’s remarkably talented cast of young actresses, all of whom either never learned the kidz-show style of overacting (“schmacting,” we sometimes call it), or were never afflicted with it to begin with. They are wholly believable in the roles of these idealized youths, with especially good performances from Tamada and Baker.
Shukert’s desire to both preserve and update the franchise’s original appeal pays off with an appropriate zing or two in the dialogue. (“I didn’t know you were such a wilderness expert,” one girl says to another during a long-anticipated summer getaway at Camp Moosehead. “Well, I identify more as a horse girl,” the other replies, “but there’s a lot of overlap.”)
At camp, there’s a full-on revolt over socioeconomics, as Dawn and Claudia discover that the poorer kids aren’t allowed to participate in art lessons, which cost extra. As they barricade their cabins and demand equality, some viewers might bristle at the notion that “The Baby-Sitters Club” has gone political. To those fussy few, I’d offer this challenge: Just try to find a show that better promotes that most sacred of conservative American values — free enterprise.
The Baby-Sitters Club (10 episodes) is available for streaming Friday on Netflix.