Earnest, sometimes ungainly, but always funny and appealing, the Netflix comedy-drama On My Block seems to be warped in from an alternate reality — one in which sitcoms starring people of color had been allowed to develop on equal footing alongside white ones throughout TV history. Created by Awkward’s Lauren Iungerich, along with Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft, the series is set in present-day South Central Los Angeles, confines much of its action to a single neighborhood, and mixes shenanigans, melodrama, and uplift. Its main cast is packed with exuberantly nerdy high-schoolers and a few rough-edged outliers, who together form a kind of ongoing symposium on race, ethnicity, social class, and opportunity in the United States, when they aren’t busy getting in and out of trouble.
The main cast include Monse (Sierra Capri), a wannabe writer raised by a single father; motormouthed Ruby Martinez (Jason Genao), a math whiz whose mix of eloquence, horniness, and desperation evokes the sorts of characters that Matthew Broderick and Jon Cryer used to play back in the ’80s; Jamal (Brett Gray), an Über-dork in the vein of Junior from Black-ish and Barry from The Goldbergs; and Cesar (Diego Tinoco), who is tied in with a local gang, the Santos, but seems ill at ease among them despite his recent initiation. One of the many remarkable things about this series is how it folds crime and the awareness of potential violence into everyday life, which is something white sitcoms never do unless it’s a Very Special Episode.
All of the characters, but Monse and Cesar especially, are affected by the presence of the Santos, and feel as much obligation as resentment when they talk about them. The series treats this nonjudgmentally, as an environmental fact of life no different from the small, cluttered bungalows where the characters live, with their worn sofas and bunk beds with three kids in them, as well as the marginal details at school, such as the pregnant girl loitering in one corner of a group composition. Like an edgier Malcolm in the Middle, the show is constantly aware of how hard it is just to live, and how whatever situation you were born into feels like the natural state of being.
The jokes are pitched right on the edge of farce a lot of the time, and it gets across the sense that chaos could erupt at any moment. This is made crystal clear from the opening sequence, a party that dissipates after shots are fired, on through a subsequent scene where Ruby tries to talk the gang leader Oscar “Spooky” Diaz (Julio Macias) into letting Cesar out of his obligations (“He’s like a certifiable genius, and he has off-the-charts emotional intelligence, which is rare!”) The recurring bit of business involving a supposed buried treasure of cash from an ’80s roller-rink heist — the amount changing depending on who’s telling the story — will ring true to anybody who grew up in a rough-edged neighborhood where it was common to pass the time by fantasizing about how to get rich quick and get the hell out. But the comedy rarely feels bleak because it’s staged with such brio. The characters talk, talk, talk, very quickly, using their hands and popping their eyes and rolling their necks anxiously, sometimes speaking over each other. One episode begins with three characters sitting next to each other, ranting simultaneously. It takes a lot of confidence to work this way, but this is a confident series, and even when it seems as if the young actors are tasked with challenges beyond their maturity or skill levels, you always appreciate how they’ve tried to go the extra mile to entertain us.
At its best, it has the lived-in quality of Cooley High, Michael Schultz’s classic 1975 film about South Side Chicago teens who get into all sorts of trouble — some realistic, some exaggerated in the manner of a tall tale or urban legend. That hit movie was spun off into two TV shows, What’s Happening!! and The White Shadow, and it was intended partly as an answer to George Lucas’s 1973 hit American Graffiti, a similarly excellent film that portrayed a more privileged American reality. On My Block takes about three episodes to find itself, but once it settles in, it’s on rails, heading toward a carefully prepared finale. After a while, you start to laugh in anticipation of what you already know certain characters are going to say, based on the time you’ve spent around them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this series ran for a long time, or until the core cast ages out of the setting, a scenario that ultimately undoes every high-school-based series. The more characters go to college or get good jobs, the happier the ending will feel.