It’s been seven years since Heather Wordham inked her final story edits for Disney Channel hit series Hannah Montana, and the longtime children’s entertainment vet has been itching to tell more tales of female friendship. And she is now getting the chance with the March 23 global premiere of Alexa & Katie, which Wordham created and co-executive produces alongside Malcom in the Middle alum Matthew Carlson.
As Netflix’s first in-house multi-cam comedy series, the 13 x half-hour live-action show follows two best friends—one of whom is battling cancer. “The idea for Alexa & Katie came to me while I was watching a news segment about two little girls. One of them had cancer, and she and her best friend shaved their heads together. I thought to myself, ‘Wow that’s a best friend story,’ so I wanted to recreate that,” Wordham says. “I’ve worked on kids shows on and off over the years, and I wanted to pitch an uncoventional friendship story because I think there’s a white space in the industry right now.”
Wordham pitched her concept to Netflix in 2016, and production began last April. (While Netflix Originals like Fuller House also fall into the multi-camera genre, Alexa & Katie marks the first production made entirely in-house, and not by a third-party studio.) “My experience with Netflix has been very collaborative, especially early on when we were just getting started,” Wordham says. “There’s just so much flexibility [with Netflix] and so much that wasn’t locked into place.”
Wordham adds that as an SVOD platform free of commercial ad restraints, Netflix is able to let creators take some poetic license. For example, some of Alexa & Katie‘s episodes are 22 minutes long, while others run as long as 27 minutes. The show’s Thanksgiving-themed episode, for one, needed extra time to fulfill numerous character storylines.
“All stories don’t have to fit into the 22-minute allotment. But they’re all roughly around the same length as a half-hour sitcom when you cut out the commercials,” says Wordham.”Audiences have really become used to the amount of time it takes to tell this kind of story…but if you keep going it does start to feel too long.”
This level of flexibility became increasingly important due to the show’s sensitive subject matter. Wordham stresses that the series is about Alexa living with Leukemia—not dying from it. To nail down the right tone, Wordham worked with various organizations, including US-based Stupid Cancer, and spent time at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. She also spoke with adults who had cancer while they were in high school.
“While I definitely want to respect how serious the topic is, it was great to hear that people want to be able to laugh, too,” Wordham says. “They want to be as normal as they can be.”
Alexa & Katie‘s parental storylines also jive with Netflix’s current co-viewing strategy, which Netflix’s VP of kids and family, Melissa Cobb, touched on at last month’s Kidscreen Summit. Netflix is making a play for multi-generational audiences by pulling in some nostalgia with Alexa & Katie‘s casting choices, including Tiffani Thiessen (Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell) as Alexa’s mom. Beyond Thiessen, the cast also includes Paris Berelc (Disney XD’s Mighty Med, Lab Rats: Elite Force) as Alexa, newcomer Isabel May as Katie and Eddie Shin (Malcom in the Middle) as Alexa’s father.