On My Block
“Penned exclusively by Black and Latinx writers, On My Block tackles race from an informed place.”
Title: On My Block
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-2
Creators: Lauren Iungerich 👩🏼🇺🇸, Eddie Gonzalez 👨🏽🇺🇸, and Jeremy Haft 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Lauren Iungerich 👩🏼🇺🇸 (20 eps), Eddie Gonzalez 👨🏽🇺🇸 (20 eps), Jeremy Haft 👨🏼🇺🇸 (20 eps), Francesca Gailes 👩🏾🇺🇸 (20 eps), Adam Starks 👨🏾🇺🇸 (20 eps), Jamie Uyeshiro 👩🏻🇺🇸 (20 eps), and various (2 ♂ and 1 ♀, all POC)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Netflix’s On My Block felt fresh as hell the moment it dropped during spring of last year. From creators Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez, and Jeremy Haft, the teen show juggles genres and refuses to be pinned down. Still, a mix of predecessors can help paint a portrait.
Featuring the ensemble nature of Freaks and Geeks, the roughness of The Chi, and the drama of The OC, On My Block ricochets between extremes. It’s both a goofy comedy, and a sober look at the perilous lives of Black and brown kids in South Los Angeles. It follows gang turf wars and fluffier coming-of-age hurdles, like first crushes and first times. Impressively, it seldom drops the ball between such tonal passes.
I say seldom, because the humor doesn’t always land for me. Slapstick delivery by some of the more cartoonish characters, like misfit Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia) or the anxious Jamal (Brett Gray), prone to high-pitched screeching, pulls the series in a younger direction.
To be fair, what makes us laugh (or wince) is pretty subjective. Less so is the fact that not subplots are made equal in On My Block. The show feels strongest when we follow Cesar (Diego Tinoco) in his attempts to get out of the gang life he was born into. I love seeing the kids get together and support him, or each other, like when Ruby (Jason Genao) plans the quinceañera to end all quinceañeras for his cousin Olivia (Ronni Hawk) . But other threads like Jamal’s surreal and dishearteningly lonely quest to find a rumored stash of money can feel like tangents.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, mostly
On My Block employs a slight male gaze. The core group of friends includes just one girl among four: Monse (Sierra Capri), Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal, falling neatly into the Smurfette trope. Too many films or TV shows cast with these lopsided proportions, seen consistently in both older works like The Goonies (1985) or nostalgic throwbacks, like Stranger Things or It (2017).
Luckily, the show only falls into the trap halfway. While Monse is indeed the only girl and she also dates Cesar, she doesn’t “split up the band” or cause any intra-group turmoil. Instead, Monse stands on her own and exhibits agency, plus a rich backstory that includes a gentle role-reversal as she’s raised by a single Black father with an absent mother, instead of the other way around.
The cast feels more balanced when you take into account its supporting characters. Ruby’s abuela (Peggy Blow) and cousin Olivia play significant roles that are positive, but Olivia especially gets short shrift in Season 2. Meanwhile, Jasmine gets played for laughs as the unwanted classmate who tries to horn in on Ruby and his friend group.
While the show does go on to develop Jasmine’s character in its second season—a crucial move, after she was the punchline for all of Season 1—On My Block continues to let slide the opportunity for more female relationships. The beginnings are there, such as Monse’s friendship with Olivia or her fraught reunification with her mother, but none of the threads stay intact long enough to feel like a priority. Episodes don’t always pass the Bechdel test, and after you throw in the plotlines of gang conflict between the Santos and the Prophets, what results is a show that veers male-centric.
On My Block showcases the experiences of families living in the fictional city of Freeridge, where residents are predominantly Black and Latinx. By centering them and drawing inspiration from creator Gonzalez, who was born in Compton and grew up in nearby Lynwood, the teen show exhibits a deep understanding of inner city youth.
Gonzalez tells i-D, “I grew up in a really dangerous neighborhood, but it was still a great neighborhood to grow up in.” On My Block illustrates this dichotomy beautifully. Other programs may choose to depict low-income areas as seedy wastelands, but that’s a simplistic and condescending way to look at it. Sure, Monse and her friends do fear for their safety after getting rolled up on, and they’re forced to deal with the trauma of losing loved ones to gun violence. But these experiences can build rock-solid communities, seen when Monse and Jamal’s fathers put their heads together and brainstorm ways to help protect young Cesar, even when it means putting themselves at risk for gang retaliation. Moreover, Monse and her friends have other things top of mind—everyday dramas that kids around the world go through.
In the end, just knowing that the show was penned exclusively by Black and Latinx writers assures that topics of race are tackled from an informed place. Onscreen, the actors generally play their own ethnicities, with slight variations such as Capri (who plays Monse) being multiracial instead of Afro-Latina, or Genao (who plays Ruby) coming from a Dominican family rather than a Mexican one.
The most overt dissonance comes through the Mexican character of Olivia, who was cast with non-Hispanic white actor Hawk and whose support for Trump had incensed audiences. Given the irony of a Trump supporter playing a character who was cruelly separated from her parents through deportation, I can hardly blame people for finding the casting decision a difficult one to reconcile.
Queer themes are never broached in On My Block, but neither are they mishandled. The closest we get to hearing about anything that isn’t straight or cisgender comes through Ruby’s progressiveness, shared in moments like when he muses aloud, ”Why are we deciding the baby's gender? The baby should be deciding for itself.”
In a cast of just 26 recurring characters across two seasons, it doesn’t feel egregious just yet that we haven’t had an out character. But if On My Block gets renewed for a third season, I would love to see this strictly cishet worldview addressed.
Bonus for Age: +0.50
Peggy Blow, the Germany-born American actor who plays Ruby’s abuela, has an important supporting role that pokes fun at stereotypes about old people (the arthritis curse!). She simultaneously gives no fucks but also comes through for Jamal as the only person to support him in his seemingly impossible quest to find a cache of money. All in all, she’s a great older character who helps depict the dynamics of an intergenerational Latinx household.
Bonus for Disability: +0.50
After traumatic events, a major part of Ruby’s narrative in Season 2 covers the effects of PTSD. The aftermath gets woven in organically across several episodes, manifesting in different and believable ways. Once more, we see the value of having creatives behind the camera who have walked in the shoes of their characters as Gonzalez explains:
"I have family members who’ve dealt with this stuff for years—7 years, 8 years after a loved one passed away or they were shot. This doesn’t go away over the course of a year."
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
What On My Block lacks in consistency it makes up for in sheer bravado and realness. Its creators should feel proud for this trailblazing show that gives viewers a totally different take on inner city kids. Fingers crossed we get a third season—in which case, I’d love to see Monse develop more female relationships, and for the show to concretely acknowledge LGBTQ themes or characters.