Despite Laugh Track, Teen Cancer Sitcom Continues to Rise Above the Genre
As Netflix continues its ceaseless quest to provide entertainment for all, a youth-targeted show like Alexa & Katie was inevitable. Historically, programs created to capture the attention of tweens are lazily made, aiming to be no better than the worst show one might encounter anywhere on the airwaves. Well-worn plotlines and inconsistent stories mean little to naïve viewers, who aren’t aware enough of tropes to recognize them, let alone find them tired. This programming arena is sort of a TV holding zone, meant to capture attention and breed brand loyalty in those a tad too old for constant cartoons, yet too immature for soapy teen dramas.
Alexa & Katie borrows the nobly-dying-teen template from John Green, removes the tragedy, and throws in a laugh track. Now in its third season, the show focuses on high schooler Alexa, who battles cancer with support from her well-meaning parents, doofy older brother, and, most especially, her next-door neighbor and BFF, Katie. Katie faces struggles of her own, as she strives to keep her grades up, act, work, and assist her single mom and little brother any way she can. No matter what obstacles these girls encounter, they can rely on each other.
During Season 1, the besties entered high school. Seeing Alexa nervous about her chemo-induced hair loss, Katie shaved her head so they’d be bald together. Other tween shows might use this device as a one and done occurrence, but now, in season three, the girls are juniors and still growing out their hair. They even kept their wigs and reminisce about shopping for them. In a similar vein, Alexa’s cancer is in remission, but the (low-scare-level) specter of it remains active in her life. This attention to detail makes the show run circles around the tween programming of yesteryear, where each episode existed in a self-contained world, full of characters and incidents that happened once, never to be seen or heard about again.
Alexa & Katie also portrays the parents in a surprisingly positive manner. Usually, the adults in these shows are entirely absent, insultingly dumb, or some combo of both. The grown-ups in this show’s world listen to their daughters, generally know what’s going on, and allow their kids freedom to grow and explore. Alexa’s parents want to hover, because of their nervousness surrounding her illness, but deliberately step back and cheer her on from the sidelines, allowing her to live and learn from her own life. Katie’s mom goes to school, works full-time, and dabbles in online dating, but still knows what’s up with her kids. And, like their daughters, these next-door neighbors are actual friends, ready to lend a hand and support each other. Such behavior in a tween sitcom manages to feel retro and revolutionary at the same time.
Easy, Good-Feeling Vibes
My middle school daughter found herself sucked into the easy, good-feeling vibes of the show, in spite of her initial reluctance to like it. Even though the program isn’t particularly hip or groundbreaking, the chemistry between Paris Berelc and Isabel May brings Alexa & Katie to life. I definitely noticed less covert sexualization of the actors (and their feet), and an absence of double-entendres that plagued the youth-targeted shows of Dan Schneider’s heyday. Sure, season three featured a few subtle belly shirts, but it felt realistic to the aging up of the characters and true to contemporary style instead of salacious.
Over three seasons, these characters and their issues have grown. Alexa continues to cope with the aftereffects of cancer and worries about her romantic feels for a sick boy. Things often fail to work out in a picture-perfect way. Katie finds she can’t improve her grades and take the lead in the school play, so she sacrifices to succeed. She struggles with her changing feelings for her boyfriend, and even fights with Alexa. Her anxiety mounts, and this season, Alexa & Katie worked through their struggles in therapy, modeling healthy coping skills to impressionable viewers.
Though far from perfect, this show somehow works. Without the banal laugh track, it would be decently solid. With the laugh track, the lack of sophistication is glaringly apparent, but then again, Alexa & Katie doesn’t pretend to be highfalutin entertainment. It’s a sweet showcase of upbeat female friendship, familial support, and facing the consequences of one’s actions. As a show created to engage younger audiences, it definitely supersedes previous offerings of the genre, and approaches its storytelling with a light touch and inherent respect for its viewers. Alexa & Katie isn’t meant to change the world, but certainly offers a safe space for those just learning how to navigate it.