Netflix’s On My Block Could Be the Year’s First Breakout HitPhoto: John O. Flexor/Netflix TV Reviews On My Block
Netflix’s newest nominee for the next generation of Teen Television, the South Central L.A.-set dramedy On My Block, is one big, irreverently cocksure nod to all the (whitest) parts of the modern cultural canon one would least expect to find in a coming-of-age story about brown 14- and 15-year olds just trying to survive daily life on their gang-ruled streets. Freaks & Geeks? Check. Goonies? Check. The Freshman? Check. All John Hughes films? Check. Can’t Hardly Wait? Check, at both Freeridge’s post-shooting replacement Homecoming and in the series’ single dip into whiteness—when the squad crashes a Brentwood Halloween party.
Shakespeare? He’s in there. Brick’s central tunnel motif has a moment, as does Stranger Things’ love of kids riding their bikes on nighttime adventures. The experimental artistry of Russian Ark? Nu, da! The single-take shot take snaking through the Freeridge Class of 2018’s house party that opens the series’ very first episode lasts a long two minutes and fifteen seconds before the main characters are even introduced.
Sherlock Holmes? In Jamal’s (Brett Gray) very exasperated own words, “No shit, Cholock.” Check in that callout, and check again when the series dips almost all the way into Scooby-Doo territory in its back half.
For the first couple of episodes, all this slangy allusiveness makes for a story that feels shaggy at best, and structurally unsound at worst. The central fivesome are cohesive and convincingly earnest as a dysfunctional friend-family unit—not least because the actors are actual, not adult, teens—but taken individually they seem to be leading entirely different shows: Jamal, an almost neurotically dramatic weirdo who feigns increasingly unlikely injuries to avoid telling his football-loving dad he quit the team in the first week of school, and whose obsession with a fabled roller rink treasure leads him into a scheming comedic partnership with Ruby’s cannabis-loving abuelita, is very self-evidently in a screwball comedy. Romantic idealist Ruby (Jason Genao), meanwhile, is the wokest reincarnation of ‘80s-era John Cusack’s most girl-obsessed alter egos; stubborn Monse (Sierra Capri) and peacemaking Olivia (Ronni Hawk) are playing out the brash, proto-feminist awkwardness of MTV’s most recent awkward, brash, proto-feminist generation (each episode’s shifting title cards even mirror those from Faking It); and academically hopeful Cesar (Diego Tinoco) is very literally trapped in his older brother’s very real gang. And then there’s Ruby’s grating neighbor, Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia), who wheels the show’s tone so far back around into broad comedy that she’s basically her own Jessica Marie Garcia sketch character from go90’s Hacking High School.
The TV series that each character seems to be in don’t easily flow together, and it’s initially jarring to move from the tone set by one scene to the one we’re thrust into in the next. How much are we supposed to laugh? How much emotional energy should we invest in the familial subplots? How genuinely anxious should we be that someone might be killed, or might have to kill somebody else? Just what is this show that Netflix, in all its weird and suddenly, alarmingly prolific beneficence, is trying to give us? Allusions are supposed to denote meaning and help shape a path through an artistic work; get too many allusions smashed together like they are here (On My Block’s preferred bawdy euphemism pun very much intended), and that path is obscured.
But On My Block is not “about” any of the things that the TV series and films and works of literature it’s so cocksurely alluding to are. Or, rather, it’s “about” all of them: Art makes it into the canon by effectively reflecting the messy, funny, weird, moving universality of the human experience, and if On My Block has one unifying goal, it is to fracture all those pillars of the white cultural canon and refract through them its own bright light to show how very messy, funny, weird, and movingly universal and un-Other the human experience of life on even the most dangerous blocks of the American city is.
That this spotlight on awkwardly, unifyingly human multidimensionality is the goal of the series’ wide-ranging allusions starts to become clear by the fourth and fifth episodes—the first of which sends our squad out into the white wilds beyond Freeridge for a little through-the-looking-glass Halloween opportunism and sees their fun night turned momentarily dark by racist, classist aggression, the second of which traps them with the Santos gang leader in Ruby’s house during a post-shooting neighborhood lockdown and sees their dark night turned momentarily fun by a rousing game of “Smash, Marry, Kill.” It is in the final two episodes, though, that On My Block’s nimble excellence is laid bare, as every background character, every throwaway joke, every Chekhov’s neurosis is looped back into the story, tying every loose thread of what had threatened from the start to stay a shaggy, tonally uncertain storytelling experiment up into one wildly tight, ultimately shocking story.
When the final credits hit, it’s clear that not one second of the season’s 10 short episodes was wasted: Every line was measured out, every background track meticulously calibrated, every initially jarring tonal shift set up precisely for a singular cumulative effect that lands in the season’s final moments like a punch to the chest you realize too late you should have seen coming from a mile away.
All these levels all these levels all these levels / All these levels all these levels all these levels / All these levels all these levels all these levels / To this / To this love. So Brooklyn artist Tattoo Money croons over a pivotal, climactic scene in that sucker-punch of a final episode, which would be meta enough, until you click over to that same artist’s personal website: “The Soundtrack of my youth was Gunshots, and police Sirens,” the landing page reads. “Grow up around that and You can’t be scared to fail, and can’t be worried about what people will say about the way you talk, dress or the things you like. I’m weird but Im fu#%in Dope!” There’s levels, man, and then there’s levels.
On My Block’s Season 1 tagline is “In Squad We Trust,” and that is great and true—Monse and Cesar and Jamal and Ruby and Olivia have a friendship to aspire to. But next season (and there desperately needs to be a next season), there could be no better tagline than Tattoo Money’s own: “Weird but fu#%in Dope.”
On My Block is now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.