'Alexa & Katie': TV Review

Warm and perhaps inspiring for young viewers, but definitely not intended for all ages.
3/23/2018

Netflix's run of very unconventional high-school shows takes a pause for this very conventional multicamera sitcom about two ascending freshmen, one with cancer.

It's the Ryan Murphy 911 Theory that states that if you build a career around being reliably idiosyncratic, after a certain point, the most unorthodox and unexpected thing remaining for you to do is something very conventional.

To some degree, I wondered if that would be the underlying principle behind Netflix moving from an unprecedented string of offbeat and genre-diverse depictions of young people — including Stranger Things, Big Mouth, On My Block, The End of the F***ing World, One Day at a Time, American Vandal and Everything Sucks! — into Friday's premiere of Alexa & Katie, a very traditional-seeming multicamera effort from Hannah Montana veteran Heather Wordham.

I watched all 13 episodes of Alexa & Katie, just in case the story of ascending high school freshmen Alexa (Paris Berelc) and Katie (Isabel May) took a detour of some dramatic or risky sort. After all, anybody who watched the first two-thirds of On My Block might come away with a very different idea of its tone from those who watched through the end.

Nope. Alexa & Katie remained steadfastly true to its core, which is a show aimed at a much, much younger demographic than Netflix's other recent offerings in this space. If those previous entries were directed at high school students and the former high school student in all of us, Alexa & Katie is probably pitched at tweens and pre-tweens with high school dreams and their parents who don't mind leaving those kids with 13 episodes of unremarkable, uncontroversial, completely well-intentioned programming. It won't take most viewers who aren't in either demo more than five or 10 minutes to draw that conclusion.

Anyway… Spirited, rule-averse Alexa and nervous, structure-loving Katie are ready to finally get to high school. They fantasize about dances and basketball tryouts and first dates. Alexa's hopes of living her dream are complicated by treatments for a very non-specified type of cancer that may or may not be leukemia. Buoying Alexa's spirits are lovingly overprotective mom Lori (Tiffani Thiessen), tentative-yet-loving dad Dave (Eddie Shin), dim-yet-loving brother Lucas (Emery Kelly) and her friendship with Katie. The two girls are so close that when Alexa's hair begins to fall out from chemo, Katie impulsively shaves her own head in sympathy, but can a friendship that survives wearing bad wigs on the first day of high school also survive play auditions, pitching a theme for the winter formal, petty teenage rivalries and, of course, that pesky cancer thing?

"Cancer" is the differentiator in Alexa & Katie. Alexa's diagnosis is an impediment to her getting to be normal and do the things necessary to define herself in these crucial early high-school moments. It's an explanation for why her mother is so clingy. It's an explanation for why her father doesn't look at her the same way he used to. And if you're thinking, "Wait, that sounds entirely symbolic and 'cancer' could just be a stand-in for 'puberty' here," well there's at least some of that. Watching episodes on my laptop kept me from being able to say with 100 percent certainty that the main character's illness is embodied basically with a bald cap — in HD, viewers will be able to know for sure if anybody shaved their heads — but this is not the kind of illness making anybody any less than completely rosy-cheeked and photogenic, since studio audiences probably wouldn't know how to laugh if the cancer had external manifestations or stakes. It's Disney Channel Cancer.

Still, it's not treated entirely symbolically or dismissed too out-of-hand. Alexa has to spend one episode entirely hospitalized in a cancer ward and it's the best of the 13, both for the brief seriousness with which it takes Alexa and her fellow patients — it's basically a half-hour episode of Fox's short-lived Red Band Society — and the grounded feelings of insecurity and loneliness the episode brings out in Katie. Much more frequently, "cancer" is just the impetus for high school farce and juvenile hijinks and misadventures — sneaking out late at night, freaking out about failing a test, getting in trouble with the principal, etc. Alexa's fever or worries about her deleted immune system are dramatic impediments worthy of less time than how to handle a surprise invite to the dance or the awkwardness of experiencing a first kiss as part of a production of Romeo & Juliet.

And that's all OK! Alexa & Katie is a show about aspiration. The characters and their optimistic and fundamentally loving approach to adversity is the desired take-away, not a grouchy TV critic going, "Shouldn't Alexa be losing weight?" or "Shouldn't Alexa's depression about her mortality be recognizably different from typical sitcom pouting?" No. That's not the show Alexa & Katie is. You're supposed to come away inspired by Alexa's determination to be normal and Katie's utterly selfless friendship. You're supposed to come away amused by Lori's tiger mom support for her daughter and touched by Dave's sometimes inexpressible love. And you're supposed to get a lot of really, really easy laughs about how Katie's younger brother Jack (Finn Carr) loves pizza and hates wearing pants. This is, again, a Disney Channel-style sitcom, and it's targeted as much for the Jacks in the audience as the Alexas and Katies.

I'm told Berelc has a Disney background and it probably shows in her energy-forward, extremely likable performance. May is more of a newcomer, but she makes Katie charmingly goofy and believably awkward. Thiessen somehow weathers the entire first season without being asked to do a direct homage to either Saved by the Bell or Beverly Hills, 90210 and she's having some fun momming it up and making viewers of my generation feel unavoidably old. Shin and Jolie Jenkins, as Katie's mom who lives in a completely different economic bracket even though they live directly next door, are also solid.

As long as Alexa & Katie sticks to its title characters, it's fine and low-impact. They get into scrapes and come out OK and it's all warm and overlit and upbeat. Adhering to traditional sitcom structure, the writers still insist on trying to give episodes B and sometimes C subplots, and it's almost astounding how little they're able to do with any plot in which the leads aren't the focus.

Netflix has pushed into the multicam space before, generally with an eye toward reinvention. The Ranch has its casual swearing and oddly evocative lighting and cinematography. Disjointed had its casual swearing and trippy animated sequences. One Day at a Time is topically progressive and unapologetic.

Alexa & Katie is not that. Nobody swears. The students attended a well-funded public school unclouded by any threats of violence. The prospect of a closed-mouth kiss is the only deviation from utter chastity. Cancer is a disease that takes your hair out in pretty clumps, but it's otherwise devoid of needles, tests or bodily fluids. It is a multicam sitcom for kids and families and, let's be honest, probably not for TV critics.

Cast: Paris Berelc, Isabel May, Tiffani Thiessen, Eddie Shin, Emery Kelly, Finn Carr, Jolie Jenkins
Creator: Heather Wordham
Showrunner: Matthew Carlson
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)