You couldn’t be a young girl in the 1990s and not know of Ann M. Martin’s “The Baby-Sitters Club.” Inspired by Martin’s entrepreneurial group of tweens, my friends and I regularly attempted to organize a baby-sitting club, before we realized we’d actually have to watch other people’s children, and I came to the sad realization that babysitters with disabilities aren’t exactly in demand. When the feature film debuted in 1995, it was a success — more so for fans of the novels than commercially — but television has been slow to embrace the series outside of a one-season wonder in 1990.
“The Baby-Sitters Club” could have easily sailed on the nostalgia of a generation past but series creator Rachel Shukert skillfully brings together the old and the new. The basic tenets are still there: Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace) starts the club, referred to from here on out as “the BSC,” while she and her gang of friends and fellow baby-sitters go through all manner of coming-of-age moments.
Each episode is structured around a specific book in the series, starting with book No. 1, “Kristy’s Great Idea.” We meet Grace’s Kristy Thomas as she not only creates the BSC but has to deal with her mother (played delightfully by Alicia Silverstone) integrating new boyfriend Watson (Mark Feuerstein) deeper into the family. Grace, like all the girls assembled for the series, is perfectly cast, capturing Kristy’s dominance and vulnerability. The idea of creating a club certainly lets her be a boss — and get in trouble for lording that over her friends — but she also uses the BSC to avoid dealing with the knowledge that Watson is going to be a part of her life.
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The central conceit is Kristy and the interaction between her, her mom, and Watson, but that doesn’t mean any of the other BSC members get short shrift. It’s amazing to watch a series that generally clocks in at about 25 minutes and never makes you feel as though you don’t know these characters. Part of that is because if you if you have familiarity with the book series it’s ingrained; but even if you’ve never picked up a copy of these books you learn and bond with these amazing young women.
And, I’m not mincing words, every single actress in this series is so sincere, charming, and wonderful, whether alone or together. At times it’s like watching the book series come to life in the best way, with a cast that’s far more inclusive than the book covers would have you believe. Grace aside, Malia Baker as the shy Mary-Ann and Momona Tamada as Claudia will steal your heart.
Mary-Ann was always the square in the books, a quiet little mouse whose father is so overprotective it’s downright disturbing. Baker plays the character as a sophisticated girl yearning to break free, but not quite sure how to pull it off. Her interactions with her dad are heartfelt and understandable. When Mary-Ann wants to change her room and her father reacts poorly, it yields to a beautiful sequence of father and daughter learning about each other, and Mary-Ann realizing how her father’s fears stem from her mom’s untimely passing. The arrival of California cool girl Dawn (Xochitl Gomez) brings nuance to Mary-Ann and her dad’s lives. Also, can I say how much I love the change from Dawn as the blond-haired surfer girl to a Latina?
Tamada is also darling as Claudia, the BSC member nearly everyone wished they were. The second episode, drawn from the book “Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls” is a great baby-sitting urban legend story with Tamada anchoring everything. A side plot dealing with Claudia’s parents, and her genius sister Janine, works great to remind kids that they should do what they love. As the series progresses, Claudia and Tamada enter more dramatic territory when her grandmother, Mimi, has a stroke.
What makes “The Baby-Sitters Club” so special is there aren’t any weak links. Not only does every actor fit their role beautifully, they work as a cohesive unit. The final two episodes — when the BSC goes to summer camp — brings in the introduction of Jessi (Anais Lee) who remains the book series’ only Black member and thankfully would join Baker’s Mary-Ann as one of two Black actresses on the series. It’ll be exciting to see how the series fleshes her character out, hopefully doing more than the original novels.
“The Baby-Sitters Club” isn’t just the perfect show for girls right now, it’s the balm for the soul we need as an audience. Watching a group of intrepid young women start a business, deal with irresponsible teens, and get their homework done is a level of responsibility to which we should all aspire. On top of that, Shukert and company truly understand what made the series and these character so relatable and beloved by a generation. With everything happening in the world, “The Baby-Sitters Club” is pure summer fun.
“The Baby-Sitters Club” Season 1 premieres July 3 on Netflix.