Your first day of high school is hard enough to get through without life throwing some giant curveball your way. From figuring out where all your classes are to the intense new workload to deciding what to wear and what activities to try out for, freshman year is a crazy time. But Netflix's heartwarming new comedy Alexa & Katie is here to prove that you can get through anything — even cancer — as long as you've got your best friend by your side, and that's the kind of content everyone needs in their lives no matter their age or gender.
The first multi-cam comedy for the streaming site (debuting Friday, March 23) is about titular best friends Alexa (Paris Berelc) and Katie (Isabel May), normal teenage girls squealing about their first crushes and teasing their siblings together. But with Alexa's cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment on the eve of their first foray into high school, they're also shouldering a life-and-death burden no one their age should ever have to deal with. And what sets Alexa & Katie apart from other cancer series is how Alexa's illness isn't the focus of her life. Through her friendship with Katie, it's almost as if having cancer is just a blip on her radar as the two girls enthusiastically navigate everything from first loves to new classes.
"I really like the message of this show and the idea. I don’t think there's been anything like this because usually it's a sad story or a love story," Berelc says, sitting on a couch in a dressing room backstage during a break from filming. "It's hard to describe the concept because it's a family comedy show... with cancer. But it's not really about cancer, it's about living with it."
The half-hour comedy is truly just that — a comedy. Alexa and Katie, who according to Berelc, are basically 14-year-old versions of herself and May, have polar opposite personalities: Alexa is an outgoing, unapologetically loud and charming troublemaker, while Katie is awkward, kind, and adorably loyal. The girls constantly end up in hilarious situations with only each other to rely on at school, at home (they're next-door neighbors), and even in the hospital.
And that's where Alexa & Katie truly shines: in its depiction of the girls' friendship. It's sweet, positive and absolutely genuine to see this kind of relationship between young women on TV in a medium often saturated with depictions of the classic "mean girls" dynamic. As popular as that is to see on TV and in film, it's just not as realistic as seeing friends supporting and accepting one another, which is "the friendship that everyone wants to have, every girl wants to have," May says.
Everyone has an Alexa to their Katie, or vice versa ("I have an Alexa and Katie molded together in real life for my ... Kalexa?" May adds). That's why Alexa & Katie is so relatable, and watching these two females lift each other up is downright inspiring. "Even when things get bad, Alexa and Katie handle it without putting anyone down, without hurting anyone else, they just figure it out together," May says. "Even with such a heavy topic like cancer, the relationship that's created within that situation can make you smile."
When Alexa starts to lose her hair from her chemotherapy, a traumatic experience for anyone let alone a freshman girl trying to fit in at high school for the first time, Katie doesn't let her go through it alone. "It's like an emotional roller coaster. Alexa doesn't want to go to school anymore," Berelc says, dropping her big smile for the first time since she sat down for the interview. "It goes to show that even someone so confident can still be really insecure. Katie supports me again and shaves her head in solidarity, and that's how we both end up bald."
That explains why both Berelc and May have their long hair twisted up into bald caps underneath beanies for filming today when only Berelc's character is undergoing chemotherapy. And that's only one of many, many different instances of how the girls are always there for one another in the series. It works the other way around too, like when Alexa helps Katie overcome her nerves about having to kiss a boy onstage in the school's production of Romeo and Juliet. "It's their ultimate bond that gets them through pretty much everything, from family stuff to overbearing mothers to boys to homework, all of it," Tiffani Thiessen, who plays Alexa's loving and protective mom Lori, says. "Having that person you can go through that all with is pretty awesome."
And that's why everyone, especially young girls (and boys!) should watch Alexa & Katie. Seeing this kind of unconditional, supportive friendship is inspiring and teaches kids that while it may seem easier to be mean, kindness is truly worth it. You too could make a lifelong friend who accepts you for who you are. "Friendship is a beautiful thing," Thiessen says. "We all have so many relationships in our lives with our mothers, our fathers, our sisters and brothers, but a friend is someone you pick."
While Alexa & Katie may feel a little bit like a throwback to multi-cam shows from the '90s and '00s, Thiessen believes now is the perfect time for people to watch it. "Especially lately in a world where it feels like all we're hearing is nothing but horrific stuff, it's nice to see people helping each other. Those are the stories that resonate and have an impact," she says.
May agrees. "It's really important to see two young girls just accept each other completely, faults and all," May says. "There is so much negativity in school sometimes, unfortunately, but if girls can go, 'Wow, look at those two females; they're strong, they love each other, they help each other out,' that's the kind of relationship and bond we need to form between women."
As Thiessen thinks back to all the "typical coming-of-age stuff" that Alexa & Katie explores in the first season, she laughs. "I remember doing all this 20 some odd years ago on another show about high school," she says of her time playing Saved By the Bell's iconic Kelly Kapowski. "It feels the same but different in a way." Playing the "quintessential mother-daughter relationship" on Alexa & Katie, however, is a completely new experience for her.
"I was definitely apprehensive at first — I haven't played the mother of two teenagers yet so that was a big thing to swallow for me," Thiessen says. "I joke with Paris, who plays my daughter, all the time, like, 'Gosh, this was my life 20 some odd years ago.' But it's fun seeing it through my eyes now with the girls, like, 'Yeah, I remember that, I remember that!' And I have a 7-year-old so it's weird to think it's not that far off for me with my own daughter."
Although Saved By the Bell aired before Berelc and May were born, they both have seen most of the episodes and were incredibly excited to work with Thiessen. "She has the best advice," May says, while Berelc laughs at how her mother reacted when Thiessen was cast as her onscreen mother. "I've never seen her freak out like that," Berelc says. "I told her she had to act cool when we first met Tiffani. I actually bought a shirt that has Kelly Kapowski on it and I wore it and walked in and she was like, 'Oh god!'"
But Berelc's biggest fan freak out moment came when Thiessen, who "always kisses me on the cheek," accidentally kissed her on the lips during rehearsal one day. "I turn my head but she was already leaning in to give me a kiss, so she just mouth-on-mouth smacks me," Berelc says with a laugh. "We break apart and she starts walking away and I'm like, wait … was that supposed to happen? It's silent and then she turns around and she's like, 'I didn't mean to kiss you on the lips.' And I was like, 'Yo, I didn't mind!'"
She crosses her arms and looks pleased as she adds, "I know a lot of men are very jealous of me because not many people can say they kissed Kelly Kapowski, but I sure can." Alexa would be so proud.