On My Block opens with a long take weaving through a house party. Teenagers drink, dance, make out, and smoke — and there, across the street, are our heroes, watching from over a fence and taking guesses as to what their own high school experiences will be like. It’s a set-up that’d be right at home in any coming of age show. Or at least, it is right up until gunshots break up the party, and the kids run off, merrily trying to guess the gun’s caliber by the sound of the shots.
Created by Eddie Gonzalez, Lauren Iungerich, and Jeremy Haft, On My Block centers on five teenagers starting high school and navigating the drama that goes along with it. The usual backdrop of the affluent, upper middle class suburb has been ditched for present-day South Central Los Angeles, and the threads that Gonzalez and company (drawing from Gonzalez’s own experiences growing up) have woven together reflect that change. As Monse (Sierra Capri), Ruby (Jason Genao), Jamal (Brett Gray), Cesar (Diego Tinoco), and Olivia (Ronni Hawk) start high school, their concerns aren’t just crushes and extracurriculars. Cesar is from a family that’s part of the Santos, a local gang (opposed, in a feud clearly styled after the Bloods and the Crips, against another gang known as the Prophets), and he’s just been brought into the fold. His friends don’t want him to get hurt, but they don’t know how to get him out of what’s effectively a family legacy, either.
What makes this notable is that it’s all treated with the same degree of attention. Cesar being in a gang isn’t out of the norm, nor is the school dance getting shut down because somebody pulled a gun. It’s not something to be seen as exotic, or otherwise fetishized; it’s just life. And, in one of the series’ best scenes, it’s made explicitly clear, as the kids face down a white boy who’s dressed up as a cholo for Halloween.
To be clear, I don’t really know anything about South Central, nor do I know anything about growing up “in the hood.” But as far as I can tell, the stereotypes in On My Block are left solely to adolescent worries (whether or not to agree to a slow dance, for instance) rather than divvied up along lines pertaining to race and the according preconceptions that are so much more common in media.
Oh, and there’s one other major thing that sets On My Block apart from the other shows that Netflix has been rolling out: almost every single character in it is a person of color. If not for a detour into a bougie neighborhood and a subplot involving an estranged parent, there’d be no white characters in it at all. Once you actually register that (it took me two episodes), it’s a shock to the system, and it’s refreshing as hell. Race doesn’t preclude these kids from worrying about who’s crushing on whom, or battling the expectations of their parents. If anything, the diversity of the cast only opens up more opportunities, such as Olivia’s struggle with her parents’ deportation, and the flurry of preparations around an upcoming quinceañera.
It helps, of course, that the whole cast is tremendously appealing. Genao and Gray are given the broadest material out of the bunch (Gray in particular is thrown into increasingly crazy scenarios involving a treasure hunt and not-quite-sentient garden gnomes), and manage to sell it all on the strength of their charisma and comic chops. Hawk is also particularly impressive, delivering the most natural performance out of the bunch, and helped along by writing that doesn’t pit the two girls in the group against each other despite the way their crushes collide. I’d be remiss not to mention Jessica Marie Garcia, too. As Jasmin, a classmate who floats in and out of the group’s periphery, she’s hilarious, despite being having to play the butt of the joke a few too many times.
As the series progresses, its strengths and weaknesses become fairly obvious. The show is best when it focuses on the relationships between the teenagers, and lets them deal with sharing rooms and going on Costco runs without trying to ostentatiously moralize. Though it’s obvious what the show is going for in weaving gang politics into the main narrative, the inclusion forces a drastic shift in tone that the show doesn’t always manage to pull off. When it works, it’s mostly down to Tinoco’s acting, as he does good work as a kid being forced too quickly into a kind of adulthood that even most adults can’t dream of dealing with.
Still, failing to stick the landing when it comes to tone feels like a small price to pay for a show that’s otherwise so charming, and offers a glimpse into a community that’s otherwise severely under-represented and over-stereotyped. The cast of On My Block is uniformly great — I caught myself laughing out loud more than once — and diversity on screen is treated as so normal that it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t been for so long. (Some of the characters break into Spanish — with no subtitles.) There’s no excuse not to watch this show. With each episode ringing in at 30 minutes, watching On My Block would take up a mere fraction of the time you might spend watching Iron Fist or The Defenders, and I’d daresay you might enjoy it more, too. Give it a watch; it deserves to live on.