'On My Block': TV Review

Youthful high jinks and heart with a cast of promising unknowns.
3/16/2018

Netflix's latest high-school-set series, from 'Awkward' creator Lauren Iungerich, isn't always consistent, but it mixes humor and grit and sometimes aspires to more.

Amid the cacophony of its weekly onslaught of original programs and movies, Netflix has very quietly carved out a place as a destination for TV's best programming about (and possibly for) young adults.

I say "very quietly" because Stranger Things was sold on its sci-fi trappings and 1980s nostalgia, Big Mouth was sold on its animation and rambunctious lewdness, American Vandal was sold on making people giggle about dicks, One Day at a Time was sold on Rita Moreno and its family heart, while The End of the F***ing World and Everything Sucks! have both been stealthy star-free word-of-mouth releases. You look away for a few seconds and the next thing you know, Netflix has suddenly become this impressive repository of diverse stories about teens and tweens, most featuring largely unknown casts of actors I suspect we'll be seeing everywhere for years to come.

It's a thing to pay attention to because Netflix has another entry in this burgeoning field premiering Friday in On My Block, focusing on a group of ascending freshmen trying to survive their inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood and the ravages of high school. And if you don't like On My Block, a mostly amiable blending of genres that's also guilty of several ambitious but large overreaches, the younger-skewing Alexa & Katie, also about incoming freshmen, arrives next week. Seriously, there's a lot of this stuff.

On My Block hails from Lauren Iungerich (who created MTV's initially terrific Awkward) with Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft. The Iungerich-directed pilot establishes the Netflix show's tone quickly with a long tracking shot through a rambunctious 'hood house party out of a '90s movie, complete with bumping-and-grinding dancers, free-flowing booze and a room of jovial potheads. The show's first hard edit is to our heroes standing on the other side of a fence looking in and fantasizing. The core quartet features aspiring writer Monse (Sierra Capri); fast-talking Ruby (Jason Genao); whimsically nerdy Jamal (Brett Gray); and Cesar (Diego Tinoco), whose family ties to the local gang the Santos will cause much of the first season's problems. The kids, embarking on their last summer before high school, look at the party from a yearning distance until gunshots send everybody scurrying. As they run, they play a seemingly familiar game guessing the caliber of the gun based on the sound. This is the life they live, a mixture of juvenile optimism, everyday fear and an overriding desire or need to somehow escape.

The series picks up a few months later. School is beginning and the friendships are already being teased by Monse and Cesar's secretive relationship and, more than that, the possibility that the pull of gang life is going to be too great for Cesar to escape.

If Iungerich's Awkward was a cutting, proudly vulgar high school comedy that dabbled in dramatic elements, On My Block is taking that cross-genre dabbling to greater extremes. There are elements of comedy in the ways neighborhood crime impacts our characters, laughs to be wrung from the occasional muggings and periodically outlandish thugs, but there's a real threat as well. Everything the kids do seems to balance the silly with the more dramatic, even if the dramatic is sometimes a little silly itself, like Jamal's Goonies-style season-long search for the possibly mythical hidden cash tied to a roller-rink heist in the '80s. For every rollicking storyline, there's attempted grounding in arcs like Monse's search for the mother who left when she was a child and the friendship-testing arrival of new girl Olivia (Ronni Hawk), who has to move in with Ruby's family after her parents were deported back to Mexico.

The result is that the young cast is mostly promising, but they seem to be acting in two or three different shows. Capri is a strong and likable lead for a light romantic comedy with emotional elements; Genao is the wildly endearing, motor-mouthed centerpiece of a Spanish-infused comedy playing off of cultural stereotypes, only to veer into a romantic sincerity that only his charisma keeps from playing as weirdly obsessive. Hawk almost never gets to be funny, but she has a real earnest sweetness. Jamal is somehow left out of most of the serious stuff and as well as Gray plays the goofy stuff, the show errs in how disconnected he is from the rest of the cast. Tinoco, in contrast, rarely gets to be funny and he's also probably the cast's weak point dramatically. Also part of the main group is Jessica Marie Garcia's Jasmin, who offers an exaggerated bawdiness that alternates between funny and really annoying.

As all over the place as On My Block is in tone, I have to acknowledge that the first season is reasonably carefully planned out in terms of weaving the disparate storylines toward a finale that certainly will get people talking, or it will get people talking if anybody watches the series at all. Even several days after finishing the first season, I still can't decide if the place Iungerich, Gonzalez and Haft take the show is admirably audacious or unsupportably foolhardy. Spoiling the direction of the first season no more, I'll just say that it has the potential to be a valuable conversation starter, or just to piss people off.

The buildup to the eyebrow-raising finale is only 10 fast-moving half-hour episodes that range from intentionally derivative and almost fantastical to gritty and ostensibly anchored in heart. Both modes are hit and miss, and yet I like how On My Block fits in with this generational focus Netflix is advancing, with a perspective all its own. I'm curious to see where this story goes from here.

Cast: Diego Tinoco, Jason Genao, Jessica Marie Garcia, Ronni Hawk, Sierra Capri, Brett Gray
Creators: Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez, Jeremy Haft
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)