Netflix’s On My Block Review: A Very Rewarding Scavenger Hunt
If you somehow missed the massive livetweeting spree this weekend, we got some good news for you: Netflix has a new original show, and it’s really good. Co-created by Lauren Iungerich (creator of MTV’s Awkward), Jeremy Haft and Eddie Gonzalez (both writers for the All Eyez On Me biopic, as well as on Empire), On My Block follows four fourteen-year-olds who’ve just started high school in a majorly Black and Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles. It manages to balance the magic, comedy and optimism of childhood with the violence, drama and grittiness of a world where shootouts are an everyday occurrence, where high school kids are pulled into the gang life, and where parents get deported and their children are left behind.
The show opens to an almost-glamorous high school house party, a Skins-like hedonistic display where teenagers smoke, drink, eat and grind against each other to the beat of Daye Jack’s “Finish Line”. And then the camera pans to our three leads, peeking over the garden wall to get a glimpse of what being in high school is like. Monse (Sierra Capri) stands between Ruby (Jason Genao) and Jamal (Brett Gray), a spot that she’ll occupy in most scenes and which subtly but consistently frames her as the leader and the lead. Soon, the fourth member of the squad approaches them, carrying lukewarm beer he stole from the party. César (Diego Tinoco) is the same age as his friends, but he looks just a little bit more mature and the local gang members recognize him as “Spooky’s brother”, which affords him a deferential treatment of sorts.
Within the first couple scenes we learn that Monse is leaving for the summer to attend a writing camp; that Ruby is gifted with numbers but cursed to always be forced to share his room; that Jamal is terrified of football but feels obliged to play to please his dad; and that César’s brother is in a gang. Though César gets the least screentime out of the four friends, the squad’ attempts to keep him out of the gang and ensure his safety does become the driving force of the season.
Critics have described On My Block as being many shows at once, and they’re not wrong. In one plot thread, we get the typical teen dramedy romantic quadrangle with Monse, Ruby, César and Olivia (a teenage girl whose family just got deported and is now bunking at Ruby’s house, played by Ronni Hawk), in another, we see Jamal and Ruby’s weed-smoking Abuelita on a quest to find a treasure from an urban-legend, and in another, César’s story slowly descends into tragedy after his brother gets out of jail and pulled into the middle of the gang war between Los Santos and The Prophets.
In general, the show manages to balance all these clashing elements rather gracefully: the school dance is cancelled because someone brings a gun, but that leads to a ridiculous house party at Monse’s. A romantic moment is interrupted by a local gang member pulling a gun on the kids. A tense scene while the block is on lockdown is interrupted by their wacky classmate Jasmine (Jessica Marie García) peeing on the kitchen sink. Sometimes these tone shifts and overlapping narratives lead to an awkward pacing or a sense of confusion, but they are usually well done and make it so audiences can feel the full weight of the kids’ struggles and fears without sinking into hopeless despair. The narrative doesn’t condescend to us nor the character, but it doesn’t let tragedy suck the joy out of life either: yes, some of these kids are having sex or carrying drug money or getting guns pulled on them, but at the end of the day they’re still kids, still going trick or treating, still coughing when they try to smoke a cigarette, still more worried about slow dances and kissing than anything else.
There are many things that make On My Block stand out. The music is excellent, the show has more than a couple moments that are visually stunning, and the performances are all amazing. All the young actors are really good, but Brett Gray steals every scene he’s in, both with his body language and line delivery; and breakout actress Sierra Capri gives the resilient and sometimes too-guarded Monse layers upon layers of vulnerability.
The four main kids are all realistic, complex and lovable, and don’t play into negative stereotypes. Jamal is a brilliant but awkward Black kid who hates sports but loves puzzles and, while he gets scolded for being unable to keep a secret, he’s never mocked or belittled for the “quirks” that suggest he might be neurodivergent. Monse is boy-ish, no-nonsense and proud, but she’s never caged in a “mean” or “strong” Black girl role, instead being allowed to be loved, protected and cared for just as much as she loves, protects and cares for other characters. Ruby and César both represent opposite ends of how Latinx masculinity and Latinx family are represented: Ruby is almost a Brown version of the classical “asshole genius” trope, verbose and gifted and a bit self-centered, small for his age, obsessed with skin and hair care, and part of a too-big but supportive family; while César is more emotionally intelligent, more typically masculine both in appearance and behavior, and the youngest of a family that is as much part of the gang as the gang is of the family. The way these families are written, as well as the way the characters use Spanish (and the choice not to subtitle the Spanish lines unless the viewer chooses to use subtitles for the entirety of the show), are proof of how the presence of Latinx writers in the writers’ room can make or break a story.
But it’s not just the well-executed racial representation that sets the show apart. These teenagers are also surprisingly realistic, always written with depth and respect. They are bad at relationships but mature enough not to let jealousy ruin their friendships, and the girls never engage in “catty” behavior. They want to date and hook up but they’re not sex-obsessed caricatures, they’re a little ignorant about sex but know about teen pregnancy and condoms. They want to party but are still children and talk warily about drugs. They use their phones to text and Google shit but there’s no ridiculous subplot about social-media-addicted gen-Z’rs. They talk about “social justice” themes like feminism and cultural appropriation, but it never feels like the characters are the mouthpiece for someone’s dissertation. And, even though the adults aren’t very relevant to the plot, outside of Oscar and Abuelita, the kids’ relationships with their families are never undervalued and most of the parents are loving and caring people who are clearly trying their best to care for their children.
All of that being said, the show isn’t perfect. There are a handful moments where the narrative tries to humanize Oscar and show that he’s a good person under his gangster upbringing, but sympathizing with Oscar means disregarding the multiple times he talked about having sex with fourteen years old girls. The treatment of Jasmine also leaves much to be desired, particularly given that she’s the only chubby girl in the show and she’s regularly used as a source of physical comedy, highlighting how clumsy and gross she is — though, by the end of the season, she got a handful of more positive scenes, so there’s still hope for the writers to turn her character around in a second season. It’s also irksome that there’s a comedic line about a gay cousin and Olivia says she’d “make love” to Monse for shock value, yet there are no gay characters in the entire first season. Dark-skinned women are also missing from most of the show, with Rosé and Jamal’s (nameless) mom being the only two darker women to get any lines. And, though casting Latinxs of different races to play relatives is a common issue in Hollywood, one can’t help but notice that Ruby’s Abuelita is played by a Black actress, yet both of his parents are on the whiter end of Latinidad and couldn’t realistically pass for Abuelita’s daughter or son.
But, though some of these details (especially the normalization of Oscar’s predatory behavior) might sour the enjoyment of the show a bit, On My Block’s first season was without a doubt still fantastic, and it’s only after you’re done watching that you can really take a breather and start to notice these faults. The season is just ten episodes, coming in at about twenty-five minutes each, and once you start watching you won’t be able to stop. It never gets boring, it never slags, and by the time you reach the final episode you feel as if you’d only been watching for a couple minutes, and can’t wait for more. Especially because the season ends with a bang, setting up the ground for a second season with even more drama, more action, and no doubt more ridiculous adventures.
Season 1 of On My Block earns a strong 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a hilarious comedy and a heart wrenching drama all wrapped together, and it manages to fit mismatched elements and clashing narrative tones in a way that feels organic, respectful, and true to life. Definitely binge-worthy, you’ll find yourself itching to watch it all over again as soon as you’re done with the finale.
Edited by Ricardo Biramontes
Since the publication of this review, viewers of the show have pointed out that there’s a moment of islamophobia in it, which we neglected to mention among its ‘flaws’. We are very sorry for that omission. In the third episode of the season, two young female characters in the show talk about being forced to wear ‘emotional burkas’, and about ‘shedding their burkas and flaunting their boobs’. This scene suggests that Muslim women’s choice of clothing is inherently oppressive and that Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive and these ideas are never directly corrected within the show. We hope the writers will respond to fans’ critiques of this scene in a proper manner and, if the show were to get a second season, that they might take further steps to make up for this offense by writing in Muslim girls written with as much care and respect as the other female characters get.