A combination of Freaks And Geeks and The Chi, On My Block debuted March 16 on Netflix to little fanfare after similarly light promotion. Even I was unaware of it until I saw tweets from friends and colleagues commending the show—and “barrio bildungsroman” is my kind of genre.
Actually, the four best friends that the show follows all live in Freeridge, a fictional South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, but so much of On My Block looks and feels familiar: the mix of brown and black faces, the clutter of religious iconography in friends’ homes full of plastic-covered furniture, walking past ofrendas placed at the site of a shooting while walking to school. They’re all markers of my adolescence, though early on, my clique was composed of my siblings (I had enough to take my pick from) instead of kids from down the street. But Monse (Sierra Capri), Ruby (Jason Genao), Jamal (Brett Gray), and Cesar (Diego Tinoco) are no less a tight-knit crew. They bicker and even betray each other throughout the 10-episode season, but theirs is a friendship burnished by adversity, so it’s not one that’s easily broken. These kids come through for each other in ways that will make you side-eye your adult friends.
The series opens on a familiar scene—four tweens eagerly standing at the precipice of near-adulthood, sneaking beers after sneaking into the periphery of a high school party. The kids’ excitement about what freshman year will look like is interrupted by the sound of gunshots, and though they rush home, they play a makeshift game of guessing the caliber of gun being fired along the way. That might sound grim, but On My Block is quite joyful. This half-hour dramedy, created by Awkward.’s Lauren Iungerich and All Eyez On Me writers Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft, is both lightweight and heady, full of slices of adolescent life in a more realistically perilous setting than Stranger Things. The storylines address hard truths, including Cesar’s forceful recruitment into his older brother’s gang and what it’s like growing up in single-parent households, but they also offer plenty of humor, adventure, and fledgling romance.
As Monse, Capri is whip-smart and big-hearted; she lives with her dad, a long-haul trucker who’s hardly around. Her search for her mother and her conflicting feelings about Cesar make up a good chunk of her storyline, but she’s not just some troubled kid. Monse is full of charisma and strong convictions, which make her the de facto leader of the group. Math whiz Ruby might disagree on that point, but he’s a little too easily distracted by his play cousin Olivia (Ronni Hawk), who’s a welcome addition to the group. Jamal is the nerdiest of the four, who fakes all kinds of injuries to avoid telling his father he doesn’t want to play football because of his understandable fear of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. While Cesar could easily be some tragic figure, stripped of his childhood innocence after being compelled to join the Santos gang, he brims with intelligence and compassion, as well as love for Monse.
On My Block holds up the realities of these kids’ lives—deportation, poverty, racism—while refusing to define them solely by their obstacles. The characters are all well-rounded, and could be dropped into any other high school setting without missing a beat. The show also leaves them plenty of room to change and grow. They are, after all, teenagers, and therefore just as full of dreams as they are hormones. These qualities make them relatable to viewers of all backgrounds, but the significance of the show’s black and Latinx cast can’t be overstated. We so rarely get to see kids who look like Jamal and Ruby go through the rites of passage that are a mix of high and low stakes; for every scene in which Cesar does something nefarious for his brother, there are loads more that see the four friends just hanging out.
There are clearly a lot of ideas and influences at work here—the permeable love triangles of Dawson’s Creek and shenanigans of House Party mixed with the poignancy and realism of Cooley High and Boyz N The Hood. Apropos of nothing but the age of its characters, there’s a season-long treasure hunt inspired by The Goonies. Most of these elements work well together, thanks to the prepossessing and inclusive cast. Genao, late of The Get Down, is full of swagger, while Capri holds down the emotional center of the show. Gray’s performance as the anxious and hyperverbal Jamal offers some of the season’s funniest moments, while the warmth and strength that Tinoco brings to Cesar makes his questionable future all the more devastating.
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Since I finished the first season, a grassroots campaign has sprung up, urging Netflix to renew the show. It’s become far too easy to sleep on whole seasons of shows now that there are multiple premieres across multiple platforms on any given Friday, but I’m still surprised this winning coming-of-age dramedy escaped my notice when it first arrived. I’ve written about and watched (and rewatched) both seasons of One Day At A Time, which, combined with my frequent viewings of Judd Apatow’s short-lived TV comedies, should have garnered an ad or two on my Netflix home screen—assuming Netflix’s algorithm is properly identifying On My Block as a coming-of-age story. The streaming company appears to be building a lineup of charming shows about growing up, including Everything Sucks! and Big Mouth. The meaningful and fun On My Block deserves to continue to be a part of that newfound tradition. “We’re brown—only white kids find treasure,” Monse tells Jamal when he tries to loop his friends into hunting for a hidden jackpot. Let’s hope that doesn’t apply to a renewal.