The Baby-Sitters’ Club books by Ann M Martin are an American institution. Originally intended as a four-book series, the adventures of best friends Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, Stacey and Dawn proved so popular with their tween audience that between the publication of the first book in 1986 and the disestablishment of the club in 2000, the series had grown to more than 200 volumes (plus specials and spin-offs) engendering 180m sales in 20 languages, and uniting generations of readers. The middle schoolers from Stoneybrook, Connecticut, did not embed themselves in the UK psyche to the same extent as, say, Sweet Valley High did for slightly older readers in the 80s, or the Gossip Girl franchise did more recently. As such, while there might not be enough awareness of the books to make the new 10-part Netflix adaptation an automatic UK ratings winner, the pleasures of the adaptation may be enough to make the books a hit in Britain at last.
Showrunner Rachel Shukert (writer for Supergirl and writer and producer of Glow) and executive producer Lucia Aniello (writer-director of Broad City and producer-director of Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens) grew up with the books. Their specialisation in telling female-centred stories with brio, warmth and humour produces fine results. What could have been a sugary nostalgia-fest or worse a reboot that indulged the apparently insatiable urge to sex up material from a more innocent time, regardless of the age and/or continued innocence of its audience, is in fact a funny, fresh reimagining. Building on Martin’s solid, good-hearted tales, it maintains a contemporary feel without losing the old-fashioned charm at its heart.
The origin story remains the same. Practical, tomboyish Kristy (Sophie Grace) notices a gap in the local childcare market and forms a small business venture with her closest friends. They meet three times a week in Claudia’s (Momona Tamada) bedroom (the design of which is to tweens what bespoke kitchens in dramas are to adults), gathering around a landline telephone sourced from Etsy.
In today’s version, of course, the internet has to be dealt with. Kristy’s mother, Elizabeth – Alicia Silverstone, as I live, breathe and find an envelope-back and pen to prove to myself with actual written sums just how long ago Clueless was – finds the membership fees for online childcare services prohibitive. And older babysitters never answer their phones. “When I was a kid,” says Elizabeth to a baffled Kristy, “my mother would just call some girl in the neighbourhood and she would ANSWER. It was part of the social contract!” The series is full of such light, decorative touches, calling back to the books for the generation that loved them, without alienating the younger audience, making it a fonder, more family-oriented show than you might expect. One of my favourite cross-generational moments was Kristy objecting, in time-honoured fashion, to her mother getting remarried to long-term boyfriend Watson and wearing a ring as if “you’re his property”. Elizabeth tells her she’s changing her name to “Ofwatson”, too. Come for the peppy nostalgia fest, stay for the Handmaid’s Tale gags, ladies.
The gang advertise as one-stop shop for harassed parents, and triumphs, disasters and life lessons ensue. To the traditional problems – bad grades, school dances, groundings, overprotective parents, absent parents, different degrees of interest in boys and conflicting loyalties between friends and responsibilities in the wider world – new twists are added. Bullying becomes cyberbullying, issues of acceptance now incorporate Mary Anne’s (Malia Baker) befriending of a trans child, and the artistic Claudia’s works now include a sculpture about menstruation. It’s more overtly inflected by feminism too – Kristy is outraged when her teacher orders her to write an essay on decorum because she spoke without raising her hand, while the boys mucked about ceaselessly behind her, and the school dance is characterised as “another chance for them to disappoint us”. If it sounds woefully woke or effortful, it’s not. It’s done with grace and naturalness, with jokes scattered generously throughout.
The nearest equivalent here is perhaps the recent BBC adaptation of Malory Towers. If you have a child (maybe nine years old and up?) or a child within, you can let them watch either without fear. A sweet relief, either way.