[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Alexa & Katie” Season 1.]
In the Season 1 finale of “Alexa & Katie,” freshman Alexa Mendoza (Paris Berelc) is preparing to attend the Winter Formal with math tutor-turned-crush Dylan (Jack Griffo). After she initially refused his sweet “Love, Actually”-style overture (complete with hand-written signs) and then worked through some misunderstandings, they’re finally set to have the classic Hollywood high school ending. And then the flu hits.
As a young woman with cancer, Alexa can’t risk being exposed to infectious diseases and therefore is resigned to sit out the dance. But there’s a reason why this show isn’t named just plain ol’ “Alexa.” True to form, Katie Cooper (Isabel May) comes to her best friend’s rescue by orchestrating an unexpected solution: everyone at the dance, not just Alexa, dons surgical masks covering their mouths and noses. Imagine all of these exquisitely coiffed and attired teenagers but with half-concealed faces dancing (and presumably smiling, but hey, who can tell?). It makes for an incredibly bizarre, but touching picture.
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But is it realistic? “Alexa & Katie” is in an unusual position for a comedy aimed at children. Although its tone is bubbly and silly, shunning more serious or challenging subject matter, the show is still on the hook to make sure its depiction of a teenager with cancer doesn’t play fast and loose with the realities of the disease. Series creator Heather Wordham spoke to IndieWire about that balance, what a Season 2 could look like, and more.
“One thing we were careful to do was run these storylines by experts,” said Wordham. “If she had a fever herself she would be in the hospital,” she said. “If it’s just the flu going around, if any germs were going around, I think with an abundance of caution they would let her do that. So it’s something we definitely tested.”
And while the show went with the happiest solution, not to mention one with the most visual and emotional impact, Wordham acknowledges that not all experts or medical professionals might have agreed.
“My friend is a social worker at a hospital in Cincinnati. She said it is different from hospital to hospital, from city to city, how they handle some of these certain things,” said Wordham. “Obviously there are still some things doctors wouldn’t allow at all. But where one doctor would allow that, another one may not. So you may not get a universal ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine,’ but we did get the feedback that ‘Yes, that’s possible. That’s not out of the question. That could happen.'”
Alexa’s Specific Type of Cancer
Something else that viewers may have noticed is that despite her shaved head and being told to rest all the time, Alexa doesn’t look or act as if she has a serious illness. In fact, she seems far more perky and animated than most of the other students in school.
“We looked at videos online of kids who did videos in the hospitals, and they look sick but they’ve got a lot of energy and they’re running around,” said Wordham. “When I was at the hospital in Cincinnati, they had kids zipping by with their IV’s or sitting and energetically playing video games while they’re hooked up to an IV. So I don’t want to say that it’s never just a sick kid.. .but the idea of a kid with a little bit of energy, even though they are looking sick and they have an IV in them, is a reality also.”
Having Alexa not look or act sick most of the time was deliberate, as was the type of cancer that was chosen for her to deal with. “One of the things that Netflix and I both wanted to be able to pull off was a show that younger kids would watch about a person who had cancer,” she said. “We didn’t want to risk losing that audience who hasn’t really seen that character before by going too dark.
“So we picked this type of leukemia that has an incredibly high survival rate. It’s called ALL, acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” she continued. “It’s common in kids and it has about a 90 percent survival rate. We didn’t want to be cavalier about, ‘Oh, she has cancer. It’s fine.’ We wanted to make sure we were depicting a type that this is most likely this child’s journey. We picked a time in the process where she would be coming through it, so that we could still show that character but not scare away an audience that we really thought was an important audience to see this.”
Casting the Perfect Alexa and Katie
The casting began with the role of Alexa, and everyone else was fit in opposite her or around her. “It wasn’t hard, but it was a long process because we just really, really wanted to get it right,” said Wordham. “We saw people that we liked, but we definitely needed the actress who played Alexa to kind of have an overt strength to her. And so, it’s one of those things where, when Paris came in, you just felt it. You’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we’re looking for.’ She has a strength to her.
“I found out after she had been cast that she has been a gymnast for many years, and part of that is showing strength … or being very stoic and not showing fear basically. So she just really carried herself well, and it was something that was pretty obvious once we auditioned her.”
Once Alexa was cast, her better half was sought to have a different but complementary sort of energy and spirit. Isabel May was a newcomer who didn’t have any other known credits until she landed the co-starring lead on the show.
“We were looking for a chemistry fit,” said Wordham. “Isabel just had a great way about her, so different from Paris, but completely her own. It lived up to Paris’s strength, her own kind of quirkiness. Different, but not less-than, if that makes sense.”
Similar to how the casting of Chinese-American actress Peyton Elizabeth Lee as the lead on Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” prompted a more diverse cast to play her family, Berelc’s casting also meant that “Alexa & Katie” would be more inclusive. Since Berelc is half-Filipino. the show wanted to cast one of her parents as Asian. Eddie Shin, perhaps still best known for playing Lane’s erstwhile Korean boyfriend on “Gilmore Girls” landed the part of Alexa’s dad Dave Mendoza opposite “Saved by the Bell” star Tiffani Thiessen as her mother, Lori Mendoza.
“When we were casting Alexa’s dad, I’m so happy that we wound up looking for an Asian father because Eddie is just so wonderful, so funny and great,” said Wordham. “I actually worked on a show with him years earlier that only went six episodes, so it’s kind of funny to wind up working with him again. So that just kind of came about really naturally.”
Justice for the Frugal Single Parent
Wordham had worked on Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” and Nickelodeon’s “The Haunted Hathaways,” both of which featured single parents prominently. The difference with Katie’s mother Jennifer Cooper (Jolie Jenkins), though is that she is very upfront about the struggles of being a single mother, especially when it comes to financial matters and constantly economizing. Ongoing jokes include her hoarding free food to take home from events, encouraging her kids to partake of the Mendozas’ generosity, negotiating a lower rate with the babysitter, and only including one chocolate chip per cookie that she bakes.
“It’s great to work with Netflix because they’re just more open. They’re not as careful, in like, ‘You have to do it this way, and everybody has to be aspirational,’” said Wordham. “I had written another spec pilot about a single mom, and this is a little bit based on my own experience with my mom. She was a single mom and she was so frugal, in that whole ‘single chocolate chip’ was our experience. We still, to this day, complain to her about our little single chocolate chip cookie. So I was able to put some of that into that mom.”
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Fortunately, audiences at an early run-through of the show seemed to respond positively to how Jennifer is portrayed. “They weren’t looking down on like, ‘Ugh, she’s sad,’ or anything like that… It gave us a chance to be more relatable. I think Katie is such a likable character and Jennifer is such a likable character, but to also see them struggling financially, as so many people do struggle financially, that I think that it makes people feel good to see themselves reflected on shows.”
The Coopers and Mendozas are next-door neighbors, a proximity that helped their daughters become best friends, but their incomes are wildly different. With two incomes, the Mendozas appear to not think about money — Alexa certainly doesn’t when she casually suggests to Katie that they buy two expensive wigs for school after they shave their heads — whereas the Coopers can’t help but monitor their spending at every turn. How, then, can the Coopers afford a very similar two-story house next door to the Mendozas?
“The backstory is that [the two families] probably moved in at the same time, and [the Coopers are] divorced now,” said Wordham. “Her ex-husband is a philanthropist-type, who is out there filming documentaries of endangered species. But he’s not the smartest about the money, and so she’s kind of been left in this position. I think part of the reason she’s so frugal, is so that they can stay in that neighborhood, so she can keep her kids in that house. That’s why we have one house that been updated and one house that hasn’t been.”
Season 2 Possibilities
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Although Netflix no longer automatically renews all of their series (see all the shows they’ve canceled so far), the hope is that young viewers and families will find “Alexa & Katie” and be keen to see their adventures continue beyond one season. Wordham didn’t have any set storylines planned, but she had some general thoughts for where the show could go in Season 2.
“The friendship between the girls, I think what we want to do is just make sure we’re still telling those stories, that we’re paying attention to that relationship and showing that support they have for each other,” she said. “Also, now that we know the whole family, it will be fun, hopefully, to get to do those stories and include everybody. The older brother [Lucas Mendoza (Emery Kelly)] will be a senior, so him trying to figure out what he’s doing with his life and that kind of thing.”
As for Alexa, it’s possible that the show could address issues beyond her illness because “there are so many other issues that teens are dealing with.” But in regards to her health, the fact that her hair has been growing back after chemotherapy is a hopeful indicator that she’s improving overall.
“As she gets better, what does that mean?” Wordham mused. “Some of these adults I talked to who had cancer as kids said that after they got better, they had this feeling of isolation. Because they didn’t look sick anymore, nobody treated them that way, so their worry was just internal. It’s a hard thing to show, but it was such an interesting insight.”
”Alexa & Katie” Season 1 is currently available to stream on Netflix.