Growing up, The Baby-Sitters Club was a book staple for me, along with Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley and The Book Worm Club. Girls in my class would pass these books around, because books were not a luxury we could afford back then, and my main source for these books was the library. Every weekend I would head there, making a beeline for the familiar shelf, my finger trailing along the spines of the books until I discovered a book in the series I haven’t read yet.
The Baby-Sitters Club was a dream world for the young me – a space where a group of best friends run a thriving babysitting business sounded like the perfect place to be. After all, at that age (and every age), we are all looking for a space to belong, and that was what the books were to me. When I heard Netflix was adapting it, I was so excited, because we need more film and TV content that is suitable for young girls and boys. The characters in the series are flawed, but they are also role models. They learn to embrace who they are, navigating the struggles between girlhood and womanhood and they do it together, as best friends.
The title of each episode in the series is actually based off the individual books, and thus gives the series quite a bit of content to adapt for a long time to come. It starts with Kristy (Sophie Thomas) having a great idea, which involves a group starting a baby-sitting business. She pitches it to best friend Mary Anne (Malia Baker), and then they take it to Claudia (Momona Tamada), who invites her new friend Stacey (Shay Rudolph) to be a part of it. This forms the core group, which will expand to add more girls as the series goes by, much like in the books. Each episode is narrated by the character who has the main plotline, so we get insight into every girl, her strengths, vulnerabilities and challenges.
The girls are all so diverse, ethnically as well as interest-wise; Kristy is into sports, Mary Anne likes theatre, Stacey is great at Math and Claudia is wonderfully artistic. Claudia was my favourite in the series (though I love all the girls), mainly because she was so cool. Her fashion style is to die-for, and I love how it is fleshed out in the series. Maybe I should get into baby-sitting if it means I can afford a wardrobe like hers.
The series truly welcomes with the open arms of nostalgia, but it also gets an update. LGBT issues are explored, in a way that seeks to normalise and empower, with one of the episodes tackling the difficulties faced by a transgender child. Claudia and Dawn (a member that comes in after a few episodes) question the inequality experienced at camp, when some campers are excluded from certain activities because they can’t afford it.
Revolutions are staged and opinions are stated, and the girls learn that dealing with issues will always involve some measure of negotiation – things do not change because we want them to. They seek change but also realise that they need to work with the system to make a difference. The Baby-Sitters Club was truly ahead of its time in the exploration of family units and dynamics. Mary Anne’s mother passed away so her father raised her on his own, while Kristy’s mom Elizabeth (Alicia Silverstone) is thinking about getting remarried again, so Kristy needs to get used to the idea of having a stepdad and step-siblings.
Kristy’s future stepdad Watson is very nice and very rich, which means an adjustment to a new way of living. After living on the income of a single parent for a while, the Thomas family have always been very careful about money. Elizabeth and Kristy have a blow-out about money, when Kristy buys an item of clothing without even looking at the price tag, and allows Watson to foot the bill. Elizabeth doesn’t want her daughter to become the kind of person that doesn’t consider the price of something before purchasing it, desiring her to remain independent even though circumstances have changed.
Having read the books, I knew that Stacey’s diabetes was a big part of her struggles, the fact that she had to initially hide it like some shameful secret. The series updates it, by adding the social media aspect of it into the discussion, where a video of Stacey goes viral, resulting in her being shunned by her friends and her family feeling the need to move to Stoneybrook. There is an entire episode that goes into tackling the difficulty of managing a condition like type 1 diabetes, but also showcasing Stacey’s determination to not let diabetes be the centre of her life. Claudia also has to deal with her grandmother Mimi suffering a stroke, and feeling helpless and disconnected from her because of it. The strength in the series is that it doesn’t paint life as a bed of roses, taking great pains to show us that bad situations sometimes teach us things that we need to know.
Stacey’s diabetes allowed her to discover her strength and maturity, Mimi’s stroke somehow helped Claudia understand her sister Janine, as well as offer her insight into her grandmother’s past. Kristy’s dad may have abandoned the family, but that just leaves room for other people to come in and love them in the way they deserve.
The series doesn’t sugarcoat the idea of friendship as well. The girls call each other out frequently when they overstep or do something that just isn’t right. They also sometimes end up on opposite sides, like Mary Anne and Dawn (Xochitl Gomez) were not on the same side regarding the revolution. Yet they respected their opposing positions and supported each other anyway. Creator Rachel Shukert does a great job in fleshing out what makes the book series so great, but also updating it so that it makes sense to new audiences as well.
As I watched this with my brother, I thought about how symbolic it is. Here I am, looking at the series with a lens of nostalgia, while he watches with fresh eyes. Despite our distance in years, the series resonates with us both. I guess good stories just work, however long ago they may be.
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This Netflix series does a stellar job in adapting the popular book series, while adding modern touches to the overall narrative so that it doesn't feel dated in any way.
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