One weeknight in July, at the end of a particularly exhausting workday spent monitoring pandemic news and conducting interviews that increasingly felt like therapy sessions for all involved, I sat down on my couch with a glass of wine, turned on the first episode of the Netflix reboot of “The Baby-Sitters Club” and felt, for the first time in weeks, instantly soothed.
I wasn’t alone. Though we are objectively too old for this, I have since heard from many of my friends and acquaintances, all professional women in their 30s, that nothing took the pain of life inside a communal trauma away quite like this new version of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” with its wholesome depiction of children discovering the benefits of organized labor; its sensitive, nuanced representation of blended families and chronic illness; and Claudia’s hidden candy stash, itself a rare pop-cultural portrayal of girls eating for pleasure rather than punishment.
Originally launched in 1986 as a book series by author Ann M. Martin, the newest “Baby-Sitters Club” is sort of a reboot of a reboot — the books were adapted into a TV series in 1990 and a 1995 film starring teen-movie icons Larisa Oleynik and Rachael Leigh Cook, before the latest version landed at the apex of pandemic TV: It’s a comforting return to well-trod narrative territory, with enough new updates to keep things interesting and relevant. (And from the winsome, self-aware casting of Alicia Silverstone as Kristy Thomas’ single mom to the yellow-plaid outfit worn by Claudia Kishi, an obvious nod to Silverstone’s iconic skirt-suit from “Clueless,” it seems as intended for old millennials as it is for actual 13-year-olds.)
And it’s what a lot of pandemic viewing looks like. While upcoming reboots of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “A League of Their Own” promise to capitalize on nostalgia, we’re already steeped in it, from Netflix’s recent addition of ’90s shows like “Moesha” and “Sister, Sister” to virtual cast reunions from movies and television of the ’90s and early 2000s.
Some of these have been polished and official — like the immensely comforting, all-video chat episode of “Parks and Recreation,” Josh Gad’s reconvening of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and John Krasinski’s employment of “The Office” cast in celebration of a fan’s wedding on his now CBS-official YouTube show “Some Good News.”
Others have been charming in their casual, relatively unmediated presentation, reflective of a new and altered access to celebrities we have now that our lives exist largely online and Hollywood’s machinations have been at least partially disrupted.
In April, “Twin Peaks” stars Kyle MacLachlan and Madchen Amick raised their coffee cups to the show’s first episode over Instagram Live (it premiered in 1990), telling jokes and swapping stories about their time working with David Lynch. The same month, “Scandal” star Kerry Washington chatted with former co-star Tony Goldwyn, “the pretend love of my life,” also on Instagram Live, as Washington filled out the census online.
By the time I started reading the tweets of actor Mara Wilson — herself a nostalgic figure to ’90s kids who grew up with “Matilda” — describing her experience watching all of “Sex and the City” for the first time, it occurred to me that we’d entered a new stage of crisis television, choosing shows for their ability to provide comfort or distraction rather than quality. According to Kelsey Miller’s book “I’ll Be There For You: The One About ‘Friends,’” this isn’t a new phenomenon. After 9/11, viewers flocked to “Friends” in Super Bowl numbers, bringing new interest and vitality to a series that had been on its last legs.
“Friends” isn’t exactly high art — or even particularly good television — but it soothed viewers, and its resurgence showed that in a crisis, we don’t want prestige dramas. We want Stony Brook, Conn. We want pre-financial crisis Manhattan. We want Middle-earth. We want President Bartlet. Like a reverse “Cheers,” we want to go where we know everybody else’s name.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s one Stephen Groening, associate professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Washington, knows well. Groening is the author of “Cinema Beyond Territory: Inflight Entertainment and Atmospheres of Globalization,” and if you’ve read any coverage on the phenomenon of people crying while watching objectively unsad movies on airplanes, it likely draws on Groening’s scholarship on the subject.
In many ways, says Groening, our current experience under the conditions of a pandemic is not unlike that of being stuck on an airplane, a place where light action, romantic comedies and family-friendly fare rule the day.
“I think people have low-grade fear of flying, that’s why they tend to drink on planes and take sleeping pills … plus it’s just plain irritating,” he said. There’s also a sense of uncertainty and a loss of control: When you’re flying, said Groening, “you’re suspended in midair, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and so you’re always in this space of waiting … and I feel like we’re in that now.”
With so much outside our control, said Groening, who himself had recently begun rewatching “The West Wing” — he said it didn’t hold up — “reaching for something that’s familiar and safe and predictable is actually a reasonable response.”
And when the abundance of options afforded by streaming services like Netflix or Hulu (or HBO Max, or Disney Plus …) collides with pandemic-induced decision fatigue, returning to something familiar is one way of making a decision and exercising some measure of control. It also means you know what’s going to happen. “Having that distraction that is also safe and predictable, I think is really what people are looking for,” says Groening.
That couldn’t be more true of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” whose characters don’t age, and whose storylines and character names (Jackie Rodowsky! Hannie Papadakis! Jessi Ramsey!) can feel ingrained into your brain like old phone numbers if you grew up reading the books.
The July day I started watching “The Baby-Sitters Club,” COVID-19 cases seemed to be spiking again. It seemed the country needed an adult. The wholesome world of Stony Brook, with its manageable conflict and baseline kindness and responsible caregivers, felt like a different world, one I had forgotten existed and didn’t want to leave.
While I was watching, a friend sent me a message on the video chat app Marco Polo, gushing about the show. She was excited for the girls to go to Camp Moosehead in a storyline she remembered from childhood, she said. Like Groening’s nervous flyers, we didn’t really know even what the next hours would have in store, but we knew we could count on fictional babysitters attending fictional camp.
When everything else feels chaotic, those small certainties matter. “(P)art of taking control, I think, is saying, ‘This is what I’m going to watch,’” says Groening. “‘I know it. I know how it’s going to end.’”