The Depth of Friendship
A pair of teenage friends face high school and illness in Alexa & Katie on Netflix.
A Netflix comedy series about childhood cancer?
It's not the usual topic for a sitcom, but then the show – Netflix's first in-house multi-camera series – doesn't approach the topic in a usual way. Alexa Mendoza (Paris Berelc) and Katie Cooper (Isabel May) are 14-year-old best friends and next-door neighbors.
They are looking forward to starting high school in a few days – but as the first episode opens, Alexa is at a children's hospital hooked up to a chemo drip, awaiting word from her doctor if she is indeed cleared to go to school.
She's soon joined by Katie, who has brought doughnuts; well, maybe Alexa's favorite was eaten on its way up from the lobby. A nurse enters the treatment room displaying purple hands: one look at who's there today, and she knows the identity of the trickster who put dye in the soap dispenser. "I don't know who did it," Alexa claims, "but the bottle said it comes off with vinegar."
Throughout this 13-episode first season – a second season is streaming, and the show has been renewed for a third – there's not a hint of doom and gloom. Alexa may be a cancer patient, but she's certainly not a cancer victim. She's spirited, determined and optimistic, "kicking cancer's butt," as she puts it.
Katie is right there with her and for her, supportive and caring. A bit awkward and a little goofy, she has her own strength and determination, and often tries to tamp down Alexa's schemes – toilet-papering a house, changing the message on the town's Welcome sign board – but usually goes along, Ethel Mertz to Alexa's Lucy Ricardo. (Berelc is a Disney Channel veteran; this is May's first-ever professional role.)
Both their names are in the title for good reason. Alexa & Katie is as much about the unbreakable bonds of friendship as it is about dealing with a serious illness. It was nominated for an Emmy Award last year as Outstanding Children's Program.
Creator Heather Wordham, who wrote for Disney Channel's Hannah Montana, had wanted to write a different type of friendship tale. When she saw a news story about two girls who shaved their heads together because one of the friends had cancer, she had her inspiration.
That show of solidarity also occurs in the first episode, aptly titled "Bad Hair Day": when Alexa's hair begins falling out because of the chemo, Katie takes a razor to her own scalp.
Alexa & Katie is not doom and gloom, but it's not all sweetness and light, either. Alexa's cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, has a 90 percent cure rate, but Alexa still gets winded, can't try out for basketball or the school play and almost misses her first high school dance when a flu outbreak is deemed too risky for her weakened immune system.
Her mother Lori (Tiffani Thiessen) is overprotective to the point of smothering; her father Dave (Eddie Shin) keeps his distance when she first goes bald because he can't handle this definitive reminder of cancer. But all Alexa wants is to be treated normally, not like "the sick girl".
And Dad does come through: "I think you look beautiful this way," he tells her in a heart-to-heart. "It reminds me of the day you were born – the day I fell in love with you."
And while Alexa insists she'll be fine, each episode includes a voiceover where she reveals a vulnerability she's usually reluctant to show. Sometimes, too, there are doubts. When her mother doesn't ground her for getting a D on a math test, Alexa says, "You always talk about how important grades are for my future. And now it's like, you think I don't have one?"
No, Lori assures her; the doctor had warned her Alexa wouldn't always be able to focus, and math class comes at the end of the school day.
The Cooper household has its own problems. Katie's mom Jennifer (Jolie Jenkins) is divorced and taking night classes. Money is tight for her, Katie and Katie's younger brother Jack (Finn Carr); when Katie buys a wig for $300 instead of her mother's instructed $100, mom's credit card is declined later that night for a pizza delivery for being over the limit. The kids' father does not have much of a presence in their lives.
Even the girls' friendship takes a hit, albeit briefly. When Alexa spikes a fever and needs to be hospitalized for observation, Katie feels left out and becomes jealous of Alexa's attention to her similarly ill friends.
Wordham researched the psychological as well as the medical aspects of having cancer at such a young age. She consulted her friend, a social worker at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, throughout the series and visited the hospital to talk with doctors and patients. She also worked with youth-themed cancer organizations; Alexa's father wears a StupidCancer.org t-shirt on the show.
By the end of the first season, both girls' hair is growing back and Alexa is able to go to the school Winter Formal dance after all, thanks to Katie's idea that everyone wear face masks, which she obtained from the hospital.
Though Alexa attends with a boy she likes, sharing a kiss with him through their masks, when a favorite song, Katy Perry's "Firework," starts to play, she and Katie leave their dates to dance together joyfully. As the message Alexa left when she rearranged the town's Welcome sign lettering said, it's "Alexa & K8tie 4Ever."
For its depiction of living with cancer with hope and grit amidst a caring, devoted friendship, the Television Academy is proud to name Alexa & Katie the recipient of a 2019 Television Academy Honors.
Seasons one and two of Alexa & Katie are streaming on Netflix.
For the award presentation and acceptance video, click here.
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