Over the last year, we’ve come to expect something a little more adult from our Netflix young adult series. We were given everything from time-jumping tragedy 13 Reasons Why to literally killer black comedy The End Of The F***king World. Even my 62-year-old father accidentally stumbled his way into watching multiple episodes of newbie gem On My Block, thanks to the coming-of-age comedy’s very grown-up themes of gang violence, economic inequality, and abuelita marijuana smoking.
Yet, Netflix’s newest series, Alexa & Katie, suggests the streaming giant might be ready to start catering specifically to tweens, too. With its bright colors, zany sitcom sensibilities, and live audience laughter, the high school comedy, premiering Friday, March 23, looks a lot like the Disney Channel's golden age fare. As stars Paris Berelc, an actual Disney XD alum, and Isabel May mug their way through wacky teen hijinks, it’s easy to imagine them fitting right in on an episode of Hannah Montana or Wizards of Waverly Place. The similarities make even more sense when you realize the streaming show is created by former Montana scribe Heather Wordham.
But, Alexa & Katie has something the tween shows of yore didn’t: the subject of cancer at the very heart of the series. The Netflix newbie revolves around multiracial freshman Alexa Mendoza (Berelc), who is battling the disease as she enters high school, and her best friend Katie Cooper (May), who is dedicated to supporting her pal. With that very sobering addition, the family comedy points toward a tween TV future that is far edgier than anyone ever predicted.
When asked if they believe their series feels like a House Of Mouse original, the Alexa & Katie cast reacts with a resounding no. “I was on a Disney show,” Berelc, who previously starred in Lab Rats: Elite Force and Mighty Med, told Refinery29 during a New York City interview. “This show is definitely different. It’s a little more mature, and we can get away with certain things that you can’t necessarily get away with on Disney.”
The 19-year-old’s co-stars agreed, with May beginning, “The subject matter…” As the up-and-coming actress trailed off before mentioning a word as grim as “cancer,” Berelc’s on-screen mom Tiffani Thiessen, of Saved By The Bell fame, added seriously, “They wouldn’t touch it.”
While Alexa & Katie is decidedly not a show aimed at adults — there’s no chance of my father absentmindedly bingeing this Netflix teen comedy for four episodes — it does offer the kind of mature content networks shouldn’t be afraid to “touch,” to use Thiessen’s word.
Example A is the fact the sitcom is built around a relentlessly loving and warm pair of tweenage female friends, a rarity on television outside the Disney bubble. “Oh, yeah, that’s true actually. Now that I really think about it,” a stunned Berelc said when reminded of that fact. “It’s nice to see a healthy female relationship. It reminds me of my friendships in real life.” Berelc’s TV BFF May agreed, adding, “When women are successful and they’re happy with what they’re doing, that’s always important. That’s what Alex & Katie represent really. That’s the core of their friendship — they want the best for one another always.”
That explains why May believes what really separates her series from the rest of the TV pack is its unapologetic vulnerability. “There’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable. There’s something powerful in [it]. People are complex. Women and girls are complex,” the Netflix star explained. “You can show all aspects of yourself and shouldn’t feel ashamed of it, ever.”
According to the cast, this kind of emotionally honest outlook applies just as much to their male co-stars as it does to the ladies of Alexa & Katie. “With [Alexa’s older brother] Lucas, you see in one episode he wants a doctor because of his sister,” Berelc said of Emery Kelly’s bumbling dreamboat of a character. The actress then pointed out Alexa’s eventual love interest Dylan (Jack Griffo) is similarly in touch with his feelings. “As you see with Dylan, I’m not the nicest person to him at first,” Berelc said. “And you actually see a guy have feelings, and he’s open about it.” It’s evident the cast hopes these fictional people can help normalize vulnerability for real-life boys too.
Alexa & Katie isn’t a show that’s going to cure cancer or save the world. But, it just might make conversations about feelings, friendship, and a disease that touches nearly everyone easier for the youngest members of Generation Z. In a world where tweens and teens are driving much of the political conversation, that kind of frank television is just the beginning of the pop culture young people deserve.
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