On Netflix, a Growing Wave of Shows for and About Teenagers
Posted March 29, 2018 3:42 p.m. EDT
Among the many treasured institutions Netflix is accused of wanting to destroy, you generally don’t hear the names Nickelodeon and Freeform.
But beginning a year ago, with the buzz around “13 Reasons Why,” this streaming service has dominated the conversation when it comes to the teenage and tweenage television categories, whether that refers to shows about, or aimed at, those age groups.
The momentum carried into the fall with the second season of the established hit “Stranger Things,” and continued this year with the high-profile additions of “The End of the ____ing World” and “Everything Sucks.”
And it’s not slowing down. In the past few weeks, Netflix has added another two substantial shows for audiences in the in-between ages, “On My Block” and “Alexa & Katie.” They won’t generate the same excitement as “13 Reasons Why” or “Stranger Things,” but they have something in common that might be just as significant: They both look a lot like the tween shows on traditional TV. As with other categories Netflix has entered, its strategy is to beat them and to join them — to co-opt audiences in every way possible.
The 13-episode “Alexa & Katie” is a straight play for the Nickelodeon or Disney Channel viewer: Its creator, Heather Wordham, worked on “Hannah Montana” for Disney and “The Haunted Hathaways” for Nickelodeon. It’s a high-energy, low-subtlety sitcom whose main characters, Alexa (Paris Berelc) and Katie (Isabel May), are descended from Carly and Sam of the Nickelodeon hit “iCarly.” Alexa’s the brainy brunette, while Katie’s the excitable, gawky blond who supplies the physical comedy.
The situation in this situation comedy is that Alexa is being treated for cancer. Teenage comedies and dramas are almost always about overcoming something: bullying and the aftermath of suicide in “13 Reasons,” literal and psychological demons in “Stranger Things,” the ever-popular broken families in “Everything Sucks.” “Alexa & Katie” doesn’t mess around — it opens in a children’s hospital, from which Alexa is desperate to be discharged so she can start her freshman year of high school.
Wordham and the showrunner, Matthew Carlson (“Malcolm in the Middle”), use this premise to give a twist to familiar story lines about wanting to fit in. Alexa wants to be normal, and she lashes out when she feels that she’s being pitied or given special treatment, leading to awkward situations with her overly protective mom (Tiffani Thiessen) and the math nerd she has a crush on (Jack Griffo). Her cancer — whose only visible consequence is hair loss, leading to a season-long focus on baldness and wigs — is like a mean parent, keeping her off the basketball team and forcing her to miss the school dance.
As a comedy, “Alexa & Katie” is about average, or a little below, if graded against the cable shows it resembles. But it’s a little more tough-minded than you might expect. The cancer theme leads to sentimentality, of course, but it’s also used to roughen Alexa’s edges: While she complains about being singled out, she also doesn’t mind taking advantage of her invalid status when it suits her.
With “On My Block,” the audience age range moves up a few years, and the TV comparisons shift to Freeform and MTV. The 10-episode series was created by Lauren Iungerich, who created “Awkward,” one of the best teenage comedies of recent years, for MTV. Iungerich grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, and “Awkward” was set in that largely white and Asian-American environment. With “On My Block,” she’s stayed in Southern California but shifted the demographics, setting the show in a fictional section of Los Angeles called Freeridge, whose residents are predominantly Latino and African-American.
The show has drawn praise for promoting diversity, but its most distinctive feature is Iungerich’s sensibility, the same one she brought to “Awkward”: a kind of deadpan burlesque in which the jokes hit on the downbeat, and the young characters, no matter how bright, seem to exist in a constant state of irritable confusion.
“On My Block” is a coming-of-age story built around a love quadrangle — two girls (Sierra Capri and Ronni Hawk) and two boys (Diego Tinoco and Jason Genao) trying to sort out their mutual attractions and jealousies. A fifth friend played by Brett Gray, whose slightly abrasive style calls to mind Kevin Hart or (very distantly) a young Eddie Murphy, provides the pure comic relief in a subplot about an urban buried-treasure legend.
“On My Block” has the off-center charm and quirky comic rhythms Iungerich is known for, but it has a problem that’s tied to its setting. The stumbling block Iungerich has chosen for her young characters is the gang life: One of the boys is expected to join his older brother’s gang, which threatens to break up “the fam” (the group of friends) as well as the central romance.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that as a dramatic device (besides overuse), but it’s uncomfortably out of proportion in a half-hour teenage comedy. The shifts from football game high jinks or a character’s apple-bong-toking abuelita to the question of whether to shoot another teenager in the head are disconcerting, to say the least. If neither cancer diagnoses nor street gangs are your idea of a children’s-comedy premise, you might shift your gaze from Netflix to Amazon, where “The Dangerous Book for Boys” has its premiere Friday. In this fictionalization of the fanciful boy’s-life handbooks written by Conn and Hal Iggulden, the central conflict involves a family whose three young boys are recovering from the death of their gadget-inventing father. Warmhearted and perhaps imaginary adventures ensue, facilitated by the father’s identical twin (played by the always engaging Chris Diamantopoulos). If you like your nostalgia straight up, without “Stranger Things"-style monsters, it might be for you.