“Alexa & Katie” answers the question that no one had thought to ask: What does the Disney-fication of cancer look like? That is by no means a knock on the series, but rather a question that reveals more about how our society shields its kids from the harsh realities that many of them unfortunately have to face every day.
The new teen comedy is part of Netflix’s recent offerings of YA programming that has ranged from the darkly transgressive “End of the Fucking World,” to the more realistic “On My Block” and the angsty “Everything Sucks!” “Alexa & Katie” is the most lightweight of them all despite the cancer storyline. Everything about the series screams Disney Channel comedy, from the cutesy color palette and kooky shenanigans to the conspicuous laugh track and uniformly beautiful cast.
It’s a fluffy shot of wholesome entertainment that is aiming unapologetically for that teen/tween set, but manages to stealthily work in a surprising amount of commentary on what it means to live with a serious disease when you’re still a kid. As a family-friendly TV show, “Alexa & Katie” never wanders into too grim territory though. There’s no talk about death (yet), no existential crises (as if), and no moves to have its protagonist start her own meth lab (alas).
In the very first episode, Alexa Mendoza (Paris Berelc) is being released from the hospital after a recent round of treatment for leukemia. And even though she and bestie Katie Cooper (Isabel May) are psyched to embrace that full freshman experience in high school, that could be derailed when Alexa begins losing her hair. Out of solidarity, Katie shaves her head, which then launches ongoing storylines and scenes centered on wigs, baldness, and various beanies.
Alexa’s cancer is ever-present in the way that winter was on the first few seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Everyone discussed it, people prepped for it or scoffed at it, and historical weather records were consulted. Winter was definitely coming — we promise! — even if it took about six seasons for it to actually arrive. Similarly, Alexa’s illness is constantly addressed — she doesn’t want it to define her at school, her dad has to adjust to her baldness, picture day sends her into a tizzy of how to style her wig – but rarely do we see her as actually sick. Hell, her father Dave Mendoza (Eddie Shin) looks far, far worse when he suffers from an allergy attack in a later episode.
Instead, relationships are what count, as this show’s title clearly indicates. Disney XD staple Paris Berelc imbues Alexa with so much attitude, athleticism, and brashness, it’s clear that she’s not meant to be an object of pity despite her illness. If anyone is going to beat cancer, it’s Alexa through optimism and sheer force of will. She’s also not above making trouble, manipulating others by using her disease, obsessing over a cute boy, or just plain being petty. She is a true teenager. In contrast, Katie (May) toes the line even as she reluctantly gets pulled into Alexa’s ill-conceived schemes. She shows moments of steel, however, when she’s showing support for her best friend.
Alexa is also supported by her parents Dave and Lori (former “Saved by the Bell” star Tiffani Thiessen), vain brother Lucas (Emery Kelly), and the next-door neighbors, who just happen to be Katie and her family: single mom Jennifer (Jolie Jenkins) and younger brother Jack (Finn Carr). The proximity of the Mendozas and Coopers creates the feeling of one big family, and the lines are blurred when they’re regularly invading each other’s houses. This extended support group is tapped often to help Alexa out when it comes to her illness.
Overall, the show’s charismatic and peppy ensemble is what makes these storylines work, especially because the show is incredibly silly, sometimes painfully. Fortunately, the cast comes equipped with the willingness and the comedic chops to deliver such material without it feeling forced. Both Shin and newcomer Isabel May are the standouts for the pure, hilarious physicality of their performances.
John P. Fleenor / Netflix
“Alexa & Katie” may not be a critical darling because of its juvenile tone, but it is important television for what it tentatively tries to accomplish in exploring a difficult subject. The messaging is heartwarming (cue the waterworks around the 18-minute mark of many of the episodes) and inclusive in depicting multicultural relationships and different incomes (Jennifer Cooper is constantly economizing and swiping “free” food).
Other family-friendly shows have learned how to balance messaging and strong artistic content without sacrificing the laughs. Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack,” Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” and ABC’s comedy “Fresh Off the Boat” have been addressing multiple issues including queer youths, immigration, and youth anxiety in sensitive ways. Perhaps if “Alexa & Katie” earns a second season (and we feel young viewers will be clamoring for more of these winning characters), it can take more risks and dig a little deeper. Disney-style comedies don’t have to be the only way to reach our youth when it comes to discussing cancer, but it’s what we got in “Alexa & Katie,” and for now, it’s enough.
Take a look at the trailer below:
All 13 episodes of “Alexa & Katie” are currently available to stream on Netflix.