'The Baby-Sitters Club': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Wholesome, breezy and one of Netflix's best to date.
7/3/2020

Netflix's adaptation of Ann M. Martin's mega-popular book series updates '90s nostalgia for modern audiences of all ages.

The halcyon days of The Baby-Sitters Club existed in a time before the internet, smartphones or texting. Communication was pure … or as pure as mildly hormonal 13-year-old girls could muster. Ann M. Martin's (somewhat ghostwritten) middle-grade book series debuted in 1986 and ceased printing in 2000, encompassing 14 glorious years of pastel sisterhood, Gen X entrepreneurship and blissful Tri-State suburbia. And, most important to me, the core years of my childhood, during which I devoured as many of these books as I could get my hands on at my elementary school library.

The ideal 1997 Friday night for me: ABC's TGIF programming block, an hour of lurid journalism with 20/20 and a fresh BSC novel read under the covers with a Playskool flashlight. #TeamMaryAnne.

The Baby-Sitters Club was a small caretaking business founded by a gutsy, if overzealous, middle schooler and her three friends. Over the years, the club grew to include new girls and even a boy or two. Each book focused on a different character via first-person narrative, exploring serious issues like divorce, parental death and chronic illness, but also the fun and frivolous minutiae of crushes, friendship and makeovers. I know Stoneybrook like I know Hogwarts or the layout of the Titanic: a mental map of the fictional Connecticut town burned into my brain during the brief but intense years of my childhood fanaticism. Twenty-three years later, I could just as easily "walk" into Claudia Kishi's bedroom, the club's headquarters, as I could my own current home in the flesh.

Yet, as protective as I am of my nostalgia, I'm delighted to find that Netflix's 10-episode adaptation of the series is not only warm and effervescent, it's downright among the best shows the streaming platform has produced to date. Creator Rachel Shukert (GLOW) and executive producer/director Lucia Aniello (Broad City) understood their charge: to sensitively update the series to modern culture while upholding the magic of the original characters and stories. They delivered.

Lacking any cheap kiddie sheen, The Baby-Sitters Club should appeal to elementary school kids and millennials alike, the new series balancing digestible junior high storylines with sophisticated (though thoroughly wholesome!) joke-telling. While gritty middle school is all the rage these days, I felt bereft when there were no more episodes left to wolf down, immediately longing for the show's comforting escape.

Sophie Grace stars as Kristy Thomas, an assertive young teen with a penchant for problem solving via steamrolling. One evening, her single mother, Elizabeth (Alicia Silverstone), scrambles to find a babysitter for her younger sibling, balking at astronomical web-service subscription prices and the cost of adult professionals ("What are you going to do, breastfeed him?!"). Kristy has a simpler solution: What if she and her friends started a local business for busy parents who don't have time to research corporate, antiseptic agencies?

She soon recruits artsy Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), urbane Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph) and reserved Mary Anne Spier (Malia Baker), symbolically christening their startup's bedroom headquarters by installing a transparent landline phone that will tingle your '90s-sense. (The writers use clever tactics to organically return our heroines to these retro solutions while still allowing them to live in a world of iPhones and Instagram.)

Like its paper-and-ink predecessors, this coming-of-age comedy flits between lead characters each episode, centering the girls' conflicts and inner growth. (Each vignette is loosely based on storylines from the original books.) Throughout the season, Kristy struggles with her mom's impending wedding to goofy rich guy Watson (Mark Feuerstein), lashing out about his "throw money at the problem" attitude and her abandonment by her birth father. Fashionable Claudia feels like the black sheep of her academic family, often clashing with her robotic tech whiz older sister. (Don't worry, kid; you don't know it yet, but supercilious Janine is still clearly a high school loser.)

Stacey, who recently moved to Stoneybrook from Manhattan, is gradually learning to manage her invisible disability … while also thirsting after every skinny teen hunk she passes. Mousy Mary Anne is still figuring out how to navigate life with her overprotective father a decade after her mother's untimely death. And social-justice-minded newcomer Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez), who recently relocated from Los Angeles, unhealthily resists self-care while knowing others are in pain. (An annoyingly hippie environmentalist 20-plus years ago, Dawn has transformed into a lovable, Wiccan-adjacent empath, the perfect foil for utilitarian Kristy.)

In addition to its palatable pathos, The Baby-Sitters Club also succeeds aesthetically, its art direction, costuming and music design culminating in a sunny, synth-y pastel tween wonderland that makes you feel like you're stepping into a colored-pencil drawing. Production designer Tink and art director Alyssa King, alongside their team of set decorators, have crafted a contemporary femme visual schema — from the verdant sidewalks, porches and front yards of Stoneybrook's outdoor landscape to the set's crown jewel itself, Claudia's textured, funkadelic bedroom. Mint and lilac walls; matching polka dot curtains; the velvet magenta armchair with fuzzy mustard accent pillow; a golden, sun-shaped headboard overlooking a patchwork bedspread; an entire art studio nook in the corner; and a side table with legs painted to look like giant chicken feet. Airy perfection.

Similarly, costume designer Cynthia Ann Summers nimbly outfits each girl to match her personality, from Claudia's chic white eyeliner, sheer-sleeved and flower-stitched blouse and dangly earrings-of-the-week to Kristy's terrifying beige turtleneck layered under a heathered sweatsuit. (Please, someone buy me Stacey's cream-colored leather jacket, stat.) Realistically, the girls even repeat ensembles, which demonstrates the production's level of detail and care. The show also boasts an electric soundtrack that includes artists like indie-pop act Wildcat! Wildcat! and chick-punk band Potty Mouth.

The show gets funnier as it goes along, the jokes sharpening to entertain fans of all ages. (The script references the social contract, class stratification, Sun Tzu's The Art of War and even menstruation with tasteful edge.) In one of my favorite non sequitur moments of the season, one of the girls randomly and enthusiastically starts belting Sondheim.

Standouts from the cast include comedian Grace as Kristy, endearing Gomez as Dawn and theatrical Sophia Reid-Gantzert as Karen, Kristy's cherubic 7-year-old proto-goth stepsister. (Karen, who starred in her own spinoff book series, remains a controversial figure in the fandom. I smiled at the nod to adult readers when Feuerstein's Watson admits that daughter "Karen … is a lot.") We're also treated to Marc Evan Jackson (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place) as Mary Anne's priggish but well-meaning father, Richard.

BSC has been adapted for the screen twice before: as a forgettable 1990 HBO series and a competent 1995 film directed by Thirtysomething's Melanie Mayron. Shukert's breezy version is the first to make me want to dig out my childhood library.

Cast: Sophie Grace, Malia Baker, Momona Tamada, Shay Rudolph, Xochitl Gomez, Sophia Reid-Gantzert, Vivian Watson, Anais Lee, Alicia Silverstone, Mark Feuerstein, Marc Evan Jackson
Created by Rachel Shukert
Premieres: Friday, July 3 (Netflix)