For a certain subset of ’90s girls, “Are you a Kristy or a Claudia?” was the original (and completely G-rated) version of “Are you a Carrie or a Samantha?” As each book of Ann M. Martin’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series focused on a different member of the club — from determined president Kristy to artsy VP Claudia to shy secretary Mary-Anne — it let readers take a peek into a tween life that could, perhaps, reflect their own. The books are straightforward and heartfelt, telling stories of smart and ambitious girls on the precipice of growing up that take great care not to condescend to them (like some of the grown-ups in their lives do by default).
Maybe that’s why, halfway through the first episode of Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club” adaptation, I realized I’d been steeling myself for the moment that this modern reboot of a children’s property would turn dark and sexy, as per increasingly typical “Riverdale” standards. But much to my pleasant surprise (and downright relief), Rachel Shukert’s update of Martin’s beloved books is, in fact, a show about young teenagers starring young teenagers that’s entirely appropriate for young teenagers. Such a concept should not be radical, and yet, it’s remarkable that the sweet sincerity of this “Baby-Sitters Club” so closely matches that of its source material while also bringing it into a recognizable 21st century.
The show begins in a picture-perfect Connecticut town with determined tomboy Kristy (Sophie Grace) starting the Baby-Sitters Club as a way to hang out more with her best friend Mary-Anne (Malia Baker), reconnect with Claudia (Momona Tamada) and make some money while they’re at it. New girls Stacey (Shay Rudolph) and Dawn (Xochitl Gomez) quickly join in, bringing perspectives from New York City and California, respectively. Believable tensions crop up as the group evolves; nothing hurts quite like a middle school friendship fight, after all. But “The Baby-Sitters Club” isn’t as concerned with drawing out drama as it is with underlining the unshakable fact of the girls’ affection for each other. And as becomes even clearer when glamorous high schoolers try to invade their turf for the sole purpose of making quick cash, everyone in the Baby-Sitters Club actually loves and reveres the job of looking after children, whom they always take seriously — even when they’re being total nightmares.
As in the books, the series’ Kristy struggles to adjust when her mother (Alicia Silverstone) gets engaged to her much wealthier boyfriend (Mark Feuerstein); Mary-Anne works to convince both herself and her protective widower father (a perfectly cast Mark Evan Jackson) that she isn’t a child anymore; Stacey hides the severity of her chronic illness before embracing it as an intrinsic part of who she is. There are, however, some pointed updates to the canon. Dawn, for one, is no longer a blond flower child but a Latina budding activist who attends new moon “sharemonies” with her crystal-loving mother (Jessica Elaina Eason). Mary-Anne learns to use her voice when her new babysitting charge, a young transgender girl, goes to the hospital only to have her harried doctors carelessly misgender her. (The way in which Mary-Anne comes to understand who she is and immediately goes to bat for her simply because comforting a child is the right thing to do makes it one of the season’s best episodes.) And Claudia —who, when Martin first introduced her, was an instantly iconic Japanese American character at a time when vanishingly few existed in young adult literature — has to contend with the fact that her beloved grandmother Mimi (Takayo Fischer) has been quietly carrying the trauma of being in an internment camp since she was a child. Each actor, a young teen herself, carries each storyline with dual innocence and gravitas, a deceptively tricky task.
While some may call these tweaks an attempt to be more timely, watching them unfold makes it obvious how timeless these stories really are. All are rooted in character; the lessons learned are direct and compassionate; the explanations are clear in a way that acknowledges children’s capacity to understand and empathize. So much of this new “Baby-Sitters Club” speaks to the care that went into it. (The costumes alone, from Cynthia Ann Summers, are crucial to each babysitter’s characterization; Claudia’s wardrobe in particular deserves its own “Teen Vogue” spread.) It’s true that, again as with the books, most of the conflicts introduced per episode get wrapped in a neat bow by the end. Every parent, no matter the issue, is loving and understanding. Every heartbreak, no matter how devastating, can be healed with a hug. Even when that doesn’t always ring entirely true, the palpable warmth underlying each resolution proves irresistible.
“The Baby-Sitter’s Club” premieres July 3 on Netflix. (10 episodes; all reviewed.)