‘On My Block’ brims with energy and charm
Nicholas Ottone | Monday, April 9, 2018
One transition deep into Netflix’s vibrant new series perfectly captures my admiration for the show and also my issue with it. On a street corner, teen lovebirds Monse (Sierra Capri) and Cesar (Diego Tinoco), torn from a long-awaited kiss, narrowly avoid death when a rival gang member pulls a gun. Then, the show cuts to their friend Jamal (Brett Gray) yelling at gnomes in a desperate attempt to uncover buried treasure. Such is the beauty, ambition and tonal whiplash of “On My Block.”
Set in present day South-Central Los Angeles, “On My Block” follows the everyday lives of five freshmen as they navigate school, love and friendship in their violent neighborhood. Ruby, a whip-smart future Romeo, and Olivia, the new girl reeling from her parents’ deportation, add different perspectives and complications to Jamal’s hijinks, Cesar’s melodrama and Monse’s anxieties. Alternately grounded and fantastical, their neighborhood hides both fabled fortunes and grave reminders of mortality, a setting well-suited for the transition from childhood games to adult realities. Theirs is a world with no sanded edges, an environment that offers few choices and even fewer futures. But slow dances still define relationships, math tests still matter and hiding your distaste for football through a series of increasingly absurd injuries is still, somehow, a foolproof plan.
“On My Block” is “Breakfast Club” by way of the barrio, a character-driven coming-of-age refracted and refined by race, poverty and deportation. The series feels familiar, as if it were cobbled from decades of teen TV and melodrama, running the gamut from “Freaks and Geeks” to “Degrassi” and “Gossip Girl.” Rarely, however, have brown and black students stolen the spotlight. This simple shift opens up new opportunities, allowing issues to organically add texture to characters instead of “Very Special Episodes.” The strikingly confident young cast proves as adept with the scripts’ sudden bouts of hormonal emotion as they are with rapid-fire retorts. Capri emerges as the series’ lead and expertly handles Monse’s deep hurt without sacrificing her cutting wit and adolescent awkwardness.
The most frustrating aspect of “On My Block” is its tone. Its collision of tragedy with comedy is not new; fellow Netflix series “Bojack Horseman” is an excellent example of wacky hijinks coexisting with soul-crushing existentialism. Rick Famuyiwa’s 2015 Sundance smash “Dope,” occupying the same genre if not the same medium, performs the high-wire balancing act in its Inglewood-set comic caper to moderate success. Yet “On My Block,” brilliant in most respects, struggles. For example, one plot involves Jamal and his quest for the gloried Rollerworld fortune, following a cryptic set of clues around the neighborhood. By itself, this story, which spans two whole episodes where Jamal talks to gnomes, would be a well-executed farce, the ghetto’s version of “The Goonies.” But, unfortunately, it sits alongside Cesar’s deepening and worrisome involvement in his gang’s violence. The tonal whiplash is disorienting and exhausting, forcing the audience to constantly re-calibrate.
Despite my unease, I cannot help but admire the energy of the series. “On My Block” makes the quietly ambitious choice to jar viewers like myself out of complacency. “Wake up,” it seems to say. “This, right here, is my reality, on my block.”
The first scene of the show is a masterful single shot that glides through a raucous house party. Suddenly, gunshots ring out. The violence, so woven into the fabric of the neighborhood, emerges, dispersing the careless laughter. Cesar, Monse, Ruby and Jamal scamper away, guessing what caliber the gun is. “Definitely a ’44,” one says, eagerly engaging in this morbidly goofy game. “On My Block” revels in the jokes found in tragedy, in the deep soul of farce. It might not always work, but when it does, it is graceful, energetic and practically dares you to smile.
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5