One of the best shows of 2020 might not have made too many waves in the mainstream, but that didn’t stop it from garnering a tsunami of praise from both super-fans and TV critics alike. And now, the Netflix original has returned with a second season that might just be better than the first.
Rachel Shukert’s adaptation of “The Baby-Sitters Club” — the beloved youth book series by Ann M. Martin about, well, a club of babysitters — saw its second season drop on Monday, offering a welcome shelter from the storm for any viewers feeling overwhelmed and overworked by the never-ending slog that is 2021.
The series focuses on the titular club made up of seven adolescent girls (Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, Stacey, Dawn, Jessi, and Mallory) who struggle with the typical trials of maintaining friends and family, in addition to facing more momentous challenges, including death, divorce, and, yes, even dating. Oh and, of course, doing all of the above while still maintaining part-time jobs as local baby-sitters.
With more than 200 novels published between 1986 and 2000, “The Baby-Sitters Club” served as a bookshelf staple of many millennial girls, plenty of whom are now mothers themselves and primed for a nostalgic blast-from-the-past. Among them is showrunner Shukert, a childhood fan of the series who was dedicated to maintaining the spirit of the original books in the second season — and hopefully beyond. Part of that drive comes from what she believes the stories have to offer.
“I feel like the books are very kind,” Shukert said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “The source material is so much about community and friendship and responsibility, not just to each other, but civic responsibility. The girls in the books, and we try to do this on the show, too, they have a certain gravitas. They’re trusted members of their community. They’re people you can count on, and there’s a real satisfaction in that.”
It’s a sentiment you’ll find echoed in comments from several of the series’ young stars, all of whom spoke to IndieWire before the premiere of the second season.
“It’s wonderful to be a part of a show with such a positive message and such a subtle, yet strong way of getting it across,” said Sophie Grace, who plays Kristy. “We show what friendship is: how we’re always there for each other, to pick each other up or to just keep lifting each other up, because life is just life and people are just people and things happen. And sometimes things don’t happen. And you have your friends and you have your family to lean on.”
While kindness is a core element of the original series, Netflix’s adaptation did take liberties to reshape the material to better represent the ethos of the show’s universe, specifically in expanding inclusion, which in the books saw five of the seven club members as Caucasian. Now, in addition to Claudia being Japanese American and Jessi being Black, Dawn is Latinx, and Mary Anne is biracial.
Kyndra Sanchez, who stepped into the role of Dawn in the second season, had her own reasons for the deep affection she feels for both the series and the characters. (Xochitl Gomez, who played Dawn in Season 1, could not return to the show due to scheduling conflicts filming “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”)
“It is definitely wonderful to be part of a show with girls who are very aspirational and realistic characters with different backgrounds, opinions, and personalities that kids and even people of all ages can relate to,” Sanchez said. “It’s really special to be playing Dawn Schafer as a Latina girl because when I grew up, I didn’t really have too many people on screen that I could have looked up to. And that is really saddening to say. So I really hope that I get to be that person that I never really had growing up. And I hope that I can inspire others who look like me, and to spread a message that if I can do it, you can do it.”
Building off of the answers of her two cast mates, Malia Baker, who plays Mary Anne, said, “Reality right now is such a tough place to be in. I feel like there’s a comfort in having ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ being that positive face and that uplifting place that you can go to at the end of a long day.”
“With ‘The Baby-Sitters Club,’ there’s these relatable characters and just kind of touching upon that sense of representation, especially as Mary Anne being the shy character that she is, having that Black character not be a sob story, which I often find that we are represented as and being that Black girl that people can relate to,” Baker said. “With Mary Anne, she goes through a huge journey in the first season, and throughout the second season, it just progresses. So having this show to fall back on, being a place that people come as a source of comfort, to watch and just feel like it’s their own home is really what I hope people take away from it. I’m just so grateful to be part of that.”
But one complaint often levied against shows populating the nicecore movement is that the products often lack the stakes and conflict found in less savory programming. On “The Baby-Sitters Club,” no one is going to be lured into playing a children’s game that might kill you or stumble into an uber-rich family’s territory war over control of a global media empire. But that doesn’t mean that nothing happens.
“Kindness does not necessarily mean a lack of conflict,” Shukert said. “The girls all have conflict points with each other. And they fight and they have misunderstandings and they clash, but they’re able to kind of move past it. And I felt like what I really wanted to show for middle school girls in the audience is: The world doesn’t end and a friendship isn’t over just because you guys had a disagreement. Friendship is really about what happens after you have a fight. It’s the same with relationships. You don’t really know how strong it is until you fight with each other”
Things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows for the characters this season. From Kristy’s continued efforts to navigate her blended family and absent biological father to Jessi’s struggles with perfectionism, real challenges emerge from every corner, perhaps none so prominent as what Stacey and Claudia face.
In Stacey’s case, managing her juvenile diabetes is always a concern, but late in the season the audience sees that’s not the only thing weighing heavily on the girl’s mind, as perpetual conflict between her parents suggests that divorce may be imminent.
“I think it’s a something that a lot of young teenagers and even older people go through,” Shay Randolph, who plays Stacey, said. “So it’s really great just to be able to have another thing that Stacy’s representing for people watching at home, and I think you can really see the impact it has on her and how it adds so much more stress onto her life that is already kind of stressful. But it just goes to show that she still pushes through it, no matter how many things she has thrown in her way.”
In the meantime, Claudia faces the starkest challenge at all: the death of her beloved grandmother Mimi. An emotional blow for all the girls, Claudia is rocked by the loss, even after the stroke her grandmother suffered in Season 1. It’s a stirring storyline that engages with grief and loss in an upfront and honest way too often overlooked in programming for adolescence. Momona Tamada, who portrays the character, delivers a sterling performance.
“Prior to the episode, I really wanted to ensure that I had a very good understanding of how Claudia was feeling, because this is just such an important moment in her character arc,” Tamada said. “I really tried to focus a lot of time into that, but also I tried to keep it as fresh as possible, so whenever I performed the more vulnerable scenes I was really able to give more of an authentic performance rather than rehearsing it 1000 times over.”
The most brilliant aspect of “The Baby-Sitters Club” isn’t its kindness or coziness, its positive programming or winning characters, it’s in the show’s willingness to hold space for the experiences of young women.
“I think that girls and women, but especially young girls who have big feelings, are so often told that those feelings aren’t real. ‘No, you’re not really heartbroken over that, boy.’ ‘No, you and your friend are going to forget about this in five minutes.’ ‘You’re not really disappointed,'” Shukert said. “And a lot of times you get that from the authority figures in their life, because they don’t want to deal with it or they want to let themselves off the hook for disappointing you or failing you in some way.”
“It’s not good because if you can’t take ownership over your feelings, you also don’t really know how to have accountability for your actions, which leaves you in this weird space as an adult where you can’t admit to anything and can’t own up to anything and then can’t change anything. And I think that is a place that a lot of women [find themselves in], especially who are sort of taught from an early age to tamp down those feelings to be more palatable, to not express anything that’s messy, in terms of anger or sadness or grief, or anything that’s inconvenient for other people. I think it’s really damaging.”
In that sense, it’s not just adolescent girls who can — and have — found something inspiring in returning to the world of “The Baby-Sitter’s Club.” It’s a place for people, no matter their defining characteristics, to find a better way to exist in the world, even if it means healing wounds that have been festering for years
“In a way, I write [the show] for myself as an adult. But the audience is also kids and so I feel like even as we talk about representation of all kinds, of different kinds of people and groups of people and inclusivity, I feel it’s also important to be inclusive of emotion,” Shukert said. “Because it follows that same preset as, ‘If you see it, you can be it.’ If you can see someone express their anger in a healthy way, then you can figure out how to express your anger in a healthy way.”
And isn’t that the greatest kindness of all?
“The Baby-Sitters Club” Seasons 1 and 2 are available now on Netflix.