Review: Netflix’s ‘On My Block’ continues the recent wave that treats teens of color as more than just sidekicks
Imagine if “Sixteen Candles” got a modern-day ’hood makeover. New wave has given way to hip-hop, bullies are gang members, not jocks, and geeks aren’t just great at science — they can determine a weapon’s caliber, sight unseen.
“That was a .38,” one yells to another as they run from the sound of random gunfire at a party. “No, it sounded like a .45,” argues the other. Another gunshot rings out. “.357,” they say in unison.
“On My Block” is clearly not “Degrassi High.”
The new Netflix coming-of-age comedy premiering Friday follows four childhood friends from a tough Los Angeles neighborhood as they enter high school.
But this 10-episode half-hour series is not an extension of “Dope,” “Snowfall” or “Boyz n the Hood.” It’s part of a wave of recent productions that consider teens of color as, well, normal teens rather than the cool sidekicks of white kids or the underprivileged victims of blighted surroundings.
“Jane the Virgin” and “A Wrinkle in Time” are just a couple examples of young adult narratives presented from a fresh perspective. The filter may be different, but the experience is a familiar one — the teens and early 20s can be a confusing nightmare of a journey, rife with dramatic and comedic material.
Co-created by Lauren Iungerich (“Awkward.”), Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft, “On My Block” is not a sweeping cinematic production or insightful commentary on urban life. At its heart, it’s a clumsy but endearing teen comedy .
The series follows childhood friends Monse (Sierra Capri), Cesar (Diego Tinoco), Ruben (Jason Genao) and Jamal (Brett Gray) as they enter high school vowing to stick together, no matter what. But they’re all immediately challenged by peer pressure, hormonal surges and their own sense of identity.
Monse is a nascent feminist who vacillates between celebrating her blossoming sexuality and hiding it from the men who all a sudden have started catcalling her.
Ruben (a.k.a. Ruby) is the smart negotiator of the group who wants to be seen as a man, but his ideas of manhood don’t square with the reality of sharing a room with his abuela, her light-up nativity scenes and Our Lady of Guadalupe collection.
Cesar is trapped in a family legacy of gang life, while Jamal is supposed to be a football hero like his dad, except he’s a terrible player terrified of injuring himself.
The best sub-narrative here is about a supposed treasure hidden somewhere in the neighborhood. Legend has it that after the local skating rink, Roller World, was robbed of $50,000 (or was it $250,000?), the thieves stashed their loot before getting busted, and now, it’s just waiting to be discovered. Only white people find treasure, says one of the teens, and we’re brown. But the possibility is there, which adds a layer of cartoonish intrigue to the show.
Most of the situations here, however, are rooted in reality. Ruby’s “cousin” Olivia (Ronni Hawk) moves in with him and his family after her parents were deported. And Monse struggles with how she is considered as a woman in the #MeToo era.
“On My Block” suffers from some stiff writing and amateur performances, but it possess a charm that’s hard to resist. Perhaps it’s because nothing earth-shattering happens here, and for a story that takes place in the hood, it’s a refreshing turnabout.
Life goes on, just like it did for the teens of “The OC,” even when there’s gunfire outside the door.
‘On My Block’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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