I get exhausted just thinking about On My Block. The likable Netflix show, which just finished its second season, is stuffed with characterization and incident, and swings ambitiously (though not always seamlessly) between seemingly incompatible modes. Each episode runs a half hour or less but feels longer, though not in a bad way. The music, vernacular, and filmmaking style are of the moment, but its stylistic roots go back much further, to the pre-TV era when people paid to see films that might contain one or more romance subplots, a bunch of slapstick comedy, some ferociously intense moments of melodrama and physical jeopardy, and perhaps a musical number or two, and would come away feeling satisfied — not that they’d seen something “all over the place,” but rather that they’d had the entertainment equivalent of a full meal comprising many different types of cuisine.
Set in the fictional Los Angeles neighborhood of Freeridge, and co-created by Lauren Iungerich (Awkward) and the screenwriting team of Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft (Gang Related, All Eyez on Me), the series favors broad comedy built around shenanigans. There are points where the main characters would seem at home in a traditional three-camera sitcom with a laugh track, a 1980s caper comedy, or a pre-WWII slapstick movie with a vaudeville vibe. When Brett Gray’s fast-talking nerd/instigator Jamal Turner gets scared, he hyperventilates like Lou Costello. When he succumbs to delusions of grandeur and turns brash, even donning a suit to launder cash from season one’s Roller World heist, he could be a teenage Richard Pryor with his playacting bravado. And when he winds himself up into spasms of irate displeasure, forcing out dialogue in oddly timed bursts while gesticulating and gyrating, it could be a stealth audition for another remake of The Jerk. (“What… is WRONG… with YOU PEOPLE???????” he shrieks, at the end of vein-popping rant.)
Jamal’s scenes opposite Chivo Ramirez (veteran character actor Emilio Riviera, a regular on FX’s Mayans M.C.), the founder of the Mexican-American Santos gang, are a chef’s-kiss display of deadpan absurdity. Chivo’s best friends are garden gnomes with whom he has one-sided conversations, and when Jamal hides the Roller World stash, he turns into a pipsqueak modern cousin of Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the middle link in a chain of madness connecting Chivo to Jamal to the audience. When Jamal unselfconsciously talks to a gnome and the show cuts to a tight close-up of the gnome, you enter the character’s headspace nonjudgmentally. It makes the brilliance of Rivera’s acting more apparent; it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that his performance showed everyone else how these scenes needed to be played. Chivo isn’t crazy, he’s just on a different wavelength from everyone else. He’s an oddball on loan from David Lynchland, the Log Lady reimagined as a raspy-voiced, monotone gangbanger.
Then, having established its goofball credentials, On My Block will take a sharp turn and become something else entirely. When the show concentrates on the relationship between Oscar “Spooky” Diaz (Julio Macias), the leader of the Santos, his little brother Cesar (Diego Tinoco), and the local collateral damage wrought by the gang’s longstanding war with the African-American Prophets, it becomes a lament for all the lives lost to the toxic nexus of machismo, deprivation, and easy access to guns.
That this part of On My Block coexists so comfortably with the knucklehead comedy is remarkable on its own, but as the old K-Tel ads used to say, wait, there’s more: a telenovela aspect focuses on romantic pairings, breakups, and reunions, with the on-again, off-again affair between Cesar and Monse (Sierra Capri) providing a throughline for this part of the series. (“What’s the point of living my life if it’s not with you?” Monse asks Cesar.) There’s domestic/familial intrigue, too, particularly when Monse tries to bond with the now-accomplished and upper-middle-class mother who abandoned her as a baby, and when the extended family of fussbudget Ruby Martinez (Jason Genao) tries not to freak out when Ruby’s older brother Mario (Danny Ramirez) comes home from college with a pregnant white girlfriend named Amber (Shoshana Bush, who manages to give a walking punchline of a character a sneaky gravitas).
Most impressive of all — if only for their extreme tonal distance from the slapstick — are the moments that detail the characters’ Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, sparked at the end of season one when their friend (and Ruby’s sweetheart) Olivia was accidentally shot dead by Prophets member Latrelle (Jahking Guillory) at her own quinceañera. The attack was aimed at Cesar and gravely wounded Ruby as well. Most of season two’s early episodes detail the murder’s psychological impact on the core group and their extended families, neighbors, and classmates (including Jessica Marie Garcia’s madcap Jasmine, a comic dynamo who gets to play trauma and resilience this season). And the show keeps returning to that well in later installments, respecting the realities of time and feeling (season two takes place over a span of months).
Olivia’s death might have been at least partly motivated by extra-dramatic factors. The role became a controversy magnet because Olivia—who’s Mexican-American, like so many On My Block characters—migrated to Southern California from Texas after her parents were deported, yet the actress who played her, Ronni Hawk, is an Anglo who tweeted in support of President Trump and against gun control. After being called out on the latter, Hawk insisted that her views had “evolved,” but by then the show’s fan base had turned against her, having already questioned why the role wasn’t cast with a Latinx performer in the first place, and her character didn’t survive the break between seasons. Olivia’s death has changed the show’s energy by creating an estrogen deficiency in the core cast, which is now three-quarters dudes. But it also opens up rewarding new avenues for the writers and actors, who stage some of the rawest portrayals of the emotional impact of violence on urban teens this side of bleak 1990s gangsta dramas like Boyz in the Hood and Blood In, Blood Out.
Genao does the season’s heaviest lifting, alternating Ruby’s delightful comic flourishes (metrosexual control-freak diva behavior; his headset and clipboard complete him) with reactive acting that showcases the miracles this actor can work in close-up. Sometimes we can see the horror replaying itself in Ruby’s mind even when the show isn’t flashing back to the scene of the crime. When New-Year’s-Eve noisemakers trigger Ruby’s PTSD, he turns watery eyed and gasps for breath, as if choking on suppressed agony, and On My Block attains a wounding power that’s as intense as it is surprising.
You’d think material that wrenching wouldn’t mesh with the sort of scenes that vintage sitcom fans would’ve seen on a series like Laverne & Shirley or Full House, such as Jasmin auditioning new girlfriends for Ruby in the school gym, or Jamal showing off not one but three “eco-friendly” go-bags for Cesar to bring with him when he goes on the lam: city, country, and desert. (The “country” bag contains bug spray, a Confederate flag, and a harmonica.) It all works, mostly, just as it does on another strong Netflix series now heading into its third season, Dear White People. It works because the actors, writers, and filmmakers believe in what they’re doing, and behave as if it’s no big deal for an outwardly modest little show to contain multitudes. On My Block is so much fun, and has such an assured momentum, that when a dramatic scene thuds or a joke clangs — or when a subplot is artificially prolonged by having characters not talk to each other, or when it’s resolved too hastily — like the subplot where Monse goes to live with her mother — we forgive the show, because we know there are five more things waiting around the corner.
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