Danielle A. Scruggs breaks down what works and what doesn’t work in her review of the half-hour Netflix dramedy, On My Block, which premieres today.
On paper, the concept of On My Block is compelling. It’s a half-hour dramedy set in Lynwood, California, that follows four friends, three Latinx (one of whom is Afro-Latina), one black, who all navigate the requisite thrills and horrors any teen faces when starting high school.
It stars Diego Tinoco (Teen Wolf ) as Cesar, a sensitive heartthrob who has just joined a gang, Jason Genao (Netflix’s The Get Down) as Ruby, a type-A, anxious type who just wants a room and partner of his own, Sierra Capri as Monse, a tomboy coming to terms with becoming a woman and falling for her best friend, Brett Gray as Jamal, an affable, if awkward person who can’t keep a secret, Ronni Hawk as Olivia, Ruby’s potential love interest, and Jessica Marie Garcia (Disney’s Liv and Maddie) as Jasmin, a not-quite-friend, not quite frenemy of the four main protagonists.
Their issues range from the serious, including Cesar’s membership in a gang and Monse’s search for her mother and female friendship overall, to the slapstick, like Jamal, who fakes a broken neck and a wonky eye to avoid telling his sports fanatic parents he hates football and has not joined the high school team.
However, in execution, On My Block ended up falling short for me. There are many elements that work, though, which made for a frustrating viewing experience for me. The first episode opens with a wonderful one-take tracking shot through a house party that introduces us to the four main characters. And in later episodes there are a few laughs that come from subverting expectations—there is a scene where Cesar ends up receiving the best advice on dating girls from an atypically avuncular cop.
I will also give credit to the creators for setting this story in a working class neighborhood, for attempting to portray Caesar as a fully fleshed out character, who is a sensitive teenager who thinks he doesn’t have a choice but to join his brother and other family members in a gang, and for a Halloween episode that directly confronts privileged white people who use Latinx and black culture as a superficial way to bring perceived danger and excitement to their lives.
However, the slapstick nature of the show is often at odds with this kind of deeper characterization that it attempts. And the broad writing is a detriment to all the other characters on the show. Everything feels rather hollow and surface-level.
For example, Jamal, is treated so poorly by the other three that I wonder why he is there at all. Jamal himself constantly pleads with his friends to include him on things and generally accepts their casually cruel behavior towards him. I am not sure if this is supposed to be a meta-commentary on how black characters are typically treated on teen shows but it struck me as odd, especially since Monse is Afro-Latina and there is an attempt to give her more depth—although the missing mother storyline she faces here feels imported from a different show entirely.
I also had a problem with the writing for Jasmin, who tries her damnedest to fit in with the four main characters. It is honestly a little tiresome to see a girl who is on the curvy side treated as the constant butt of the joke. She’s loud, crass, overtly sexual, and doesn’t seem to understand that no one likes her. While Jessica Marie Garcia is a great at physical comedy, I was hoping for her to be more than just comic relief. How refreshing and subversive it would have been if Ruby accepted Jasmin’s quirks (because he certainly has no shortage of his own) and had a crush on her instead of the more conventionally attractive Olivia (Ronni Hawk).
There are also too many moments that happen off screen, where I wanted to be shown the action rather than told what happened. Monse has a romance with Cesar before going to writing camp. And instead of seeing what led up to that moment and seeing her at the place that is allowing her to hone her passion for writing, we simply have the characters telling us about it. It would have made more sense for this to happen on-screen, given the season-long fallout that comes from their decisions.
I wanted to like On My Block more than I did, because it centers brown and black folks who are dealing with the kinds of ups and downs everyone faces as they come of age. I also think the actors assembled are charming and hold their own, especially considering that most of the cast is new to the field. But I want more for them and I hope the creators of the show will trust them and their audience with more depth.
You can see On My Block for yourself as today, March 16, marks the show’s arrival to the popular streaming service.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.