How On My Block Avoided Turning Season 2 Into an ‘After-school Special’

Photo: Nicola Goode/Netflix

Spoilers below for On My Block seasons one and two.

You know how Ruby on On My Block is L.A.’s most demanding party planner? That’s co-creator Eddie Gonzalez in a nutshell. Jamal, on the other hand, with his emergency go-bags, that’s co-creator Jeremy Haft.

The two men have been friends and writing partners for over two decades — even co-writing the 2017 Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me — but their Netflix dramedy about four high-school friends growing up in an inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood dominated by two gangs is their most personal project to date. For years, they had discussed creating a show based on Gonzalez’s childhood in South Los Angeles, but it wasn’t until they met Awkward creator Lauren Iungerich that On My Block began to come together. Iungerich had mentioned that she’d been interested in developing a high school show involving people of color.

“Lauren told me that a lot of the kids that watched Awkward were kids of color, but she didn’t feel that she knew that world or those kids,” Haft said. “I told her she should meet Eddie again because we had been wanting to do a fun John Hughes version of his life, of him being Mexican and growing up in Compton and Lynwood, and how he has 117 first cousins.”

The three of them met the next day, and after pitching three other streaming companies and one cable network, they sold the show to Netflix. “We would go into meetings, and people would be like, ‘Oh my God, were you scared?” Gonzalez said. “And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but there was also this vibrancy in the community and a beautiful sense of community. People are seeing what it’s like to grow up in a neighborhood like the fictional Freeridge where it wasn’t all guns and bullets. That stuff happens, but we didn’t want to portray it as a bleak neighborhood.”

The series, which launched its second season last month, drew critical acclaim in its freshman cycle thanks in large part to the chemistry of its fresh-faced lead actors and the poignant, realistic stories of their characters: Ruby (Jason Genao), Jamal (Brett Gray), Monse (Sierra Capri) and Cesar (Diego Tinoco). Vulture recently met Gonzalez and Haft for lunch in Los Angeles to talk about how they developed the world of Freeridge, why they “don’t buy” the idea that diverse hiring is hard, and why killing off Ronni Hawk’s character Olivia at the end of season one was always the plan.

Eddie, I know that Ruby is modeled after you. But how did you develop the rest of the squad and the world of Freeridge?
Jeremy Haft: When we started out, we had a bunch more characters. Ruby was always there because he’s like Eddie. Monse is a version of Lauren. Jamal is a version of me.

Eddie Gonzalez: The beauty of it is that, on the surface, you wouldn’t think they’d all be friends. But they just click. We set up Freeridge as a multi-ethnic community that wasn’t just predominately Hispanic or predominately African-American. It was both.

Why did you decide that the crew would only have one girl?
Gonzalez: That speaks to her backstory because eventually the story becomes about female empowerment with her. She is the glue of the crew, but she’s trying to figure herself out as a woman. We thought there’s much more story to be mined in that situation. For the boys, they don’t have any girls around them. They have this person that could be a curse and a blessing.

Haft: Speaking to the universality of the teen experience, boys and girls are all buddies, and then girls change and become young women and the boys start noticing them. Monse’s changing and maturing, but she is surrounded by three guys and a father. There’s no mother figure, so we wanted to explore that.

The show’s tone strikes a delicate balance of depicting a neighborhood where kids may be used to crime but aren’t brought down by it. They celebrate quinces, fall in love, fight with and support each other. How hard do you have to work at nailing that?
Gonzalez: You definitely have to balance that tone, and that’s hard to do, because otherwise it becomes very heavy-handed.

Haft: This show is a dramedy, but we knew from the pitch that Olivia [Ronni Hawk’s character] was gonna die. And now we have a dead character who we all love and the kids all love and Ruby was in love with. How do we get back to that tone? You really have to be careful to be true and authentic to the feelings and to Ruby’s PTSD to not make it an after-school special.

Gonzalez: That’s what life is. Life is I think I’m doing well and then, all of a sudden, there’s a trigger.

Grief certainly is that way.
Gonzalez: My brother passed away about three years ago while we were on our second day of shooting [the 2017 film All Eyez On Me]. It was devastating. My coping mechanism was I stopped working for maybe an hour, and said, “Okay, let’s get back to work.” I’m in shock. You think you’re doing better, and all of a sudden you walk into a restaurant and you hear a song that he loved and you just lose it. That’s what we wanted to portray.

For me, personally, that’s what life was like. I would be thinking about a Friday quiz, or Oh my God, this girl’s going to be at the dance. All of a sudden, boom, there’s a shooting. Now your school is on lockdown. That’s why the tonal shift. It is difficult to accomplish that, but this is what real life is like.

We see it in the pilot. One moment they’re spying on a party dreaming of what high school is going to be like, and the next shots are fired. As they run away, they play a game guessing what the bullet calibers are. And they’re laughing.
Gonzalez: I was really good at guessing! And how many times have we spoken to kids of color who say, “Oh my God, we do the same thing!” That’s how you know you grew up where we grew up. We were fortunate enough to be in a room with writers of color, writers who understood this world. We all sat there and talked about what the show needed to be as authentic as possible. They’d bring in these amazing stories about their background. We had these two story consultants who were fantastic. One grew up in Watts; one grew up in Inglewood. They would tell us their stories. Sometimes they’re heartbreaking stories, sometimes they’re funny as hell. And that’s we wanted to imbue into these characters.

Were all the show’s writers people of color?
Gonzalez: Obviously, you’re not trying to discriminate, but we wanted to have people who had connection to this world, who understood it. There’s a shorthand when you’re in a room and you’re saying something like, “Your comadre comes over” and they go, “Oh yeah, I get it.” It makes it so much easier. That’s why we did that in the room, but we also did that behind the camera. Our crew is like no other set I’ve ever been on. There are people of color everywhere and it’s beautiful. One of the things I’ve sang Lauren’s praises about is that, from day one, the goal was to create opportunity for those who don’t get the opportunity. And she did it.

One thing you hear a lot from other producers is that they’d love to hire more diverse writers, but they can’t find them. Was it hard?
Gonzalez: No, the talent is there. You just have to look. Before we were put in this position of hiring, we would hear that and I’d be like, “No! I’m right here! We’re waiting!” So I don’t buy it now. It’s hard finding talented writers, period. This is no diss to anyone out there. But it’s really hard to write! We probably read 200 to 250 people over the two years.

Haft: This show has a very unique tone and a very unique voice. You could be an amazing writer for a sitcom or an amazing writer for a drama, but do you have a relationship with the world? How can you connect to this material? There are some people that connect, like our story consultants Walter [Finnie] and Kyland [Turner]. We have other writers who might have not grown up in the inner city, but they have the connection to the material through life experiences.

Latinx Hollywood has been upset about Netflix’s cancellation of One Day at a Time. How do you view that as a Latino writer who also has a show on Netflix?
Gonzalez: It’s not so much what the show accomplished in terms of whatever ratings or critical attention. It furthered the conversation about Latinos on TV. That’s what it did. This is all baby steps. It may take a few more years, but the fact that people are talking about that? To me, that is a huge home run. I’d rather have that than a show that came and went and no one talked about it.

So, do you think this is a better time to tell our stories?
Gonzalez: Without a doubt. When I first started out, before Jeremy and I were writing together, the meetings I would get were exactly the same. It would be the same companies, no joke. It would be Salma Hayek’s company, which is great. It would be Emilio Estevez’s company. And Héctor Elizondo. Now we’re going into meetings with “white places” where they want to hear these stories.

Our goal here, if nothing else, is that hopefully this spawns other Hispanic shows, other African-American shows. That’s why we root for Fresh Off the Boat. We root for Black-ish. And it’s not a knock on the “white shows” that we grew up on, but it’s all you’re being fed. Now, they’re eating avocado toast and you’re sitting there going, “I ate avocados my whole life as a kid. Finally, you’re seeing our value!”

Let’s talk about the season one cliffhanger. Did you always know where you were going with that story? Were there any debates in the writer’s room about whether Ruby or Olivia would die?
Haft: When we pitched the show, before we even wrote any of it, that is exactly what was going to happen. We wanted to be authentic and real to the neighborhood and the experience of what would happen if there would be a shooting. If you’re gonna be real, unfortunately, she’s gonna die.

Gonzalez: I remember the reactions from the Netflix executives. They go, “Oh my God, all Ruby wants to do is be viewed as a man, and he’s gonna finally find this girl that he falls for. And he’s gonna get that kiss by the end of the season. That’s great!” And then we said, “She’s going to die.” I remember their faces.

So there was never any scenario where Ruby would die?
Gonzalez and Haft: Nooo!

The opening montage of season two is really evocative, seeing all the sidewalk memorials in the neighborhood. How did you pick the song “Glitter” by 070 Shake, and why did you begin the season like that? Gonzalez: I give tremendous credit to Ben Hochstein and Jamie Dooner, our music supervisors. You hear it for the first time and you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s, it’s like the song was written specifically for that scene.”

Haft: We wanted to set a mood. Visually, we were able to show what’s been happening over the last couple weeks. What are the reverberations of this innocent person being shot and what the real stakes are?

Your fans were flipping out last year over the possibility of Ruby dying. Gonzalez: We knew people loved him, but wow! The death threats we would get! [Laughs.] But that kind of passion is great. To get visceral response to our work, there’s nothing like that. I would rather someone watch the show and say, “I hate you” than go, “Meh, no.”

Eddie, are you an amazing party planner?
Gonzalez: I am a very detail-oriented guy. As Jeremy will say, I can be a little bit anal about stuff. I’m a lot like Ruby. I got along with everybody in high school. I got along with the jocks, with the geeks, with the smart gang, with everybody because when you’re that short, you have to get along with people.

Haft: Eddie knows a lot about a lot of things. You know how Ruby does taxes for people? Literally, someone called Eddie the other day about estate planning, and then someone else called about luggage.

Gonzalez: When I was a kid, I did do my neighbor’s 1040EZ. I was pretty good with math, so we wanted to put that into Ruby’s character. There are a lot of things from my life. The Abuelita that lived at home and you never get your own room. I’m the last of eight kids. The house was never empty. You’d come to the house, and my mom always had food on the stove because you never knew when someone would pull up and wanna eat. My sister says every time she watches the episodes it’s déjà vu. It’s watching mom’s house.

Jeremy, do you have many things in common with Jamal?
Haft: I love the Yeti and Bigfoot. I love conspiracy theories and the Bermuda Triangle, and all that stuff. I love weird gadgets and how they work. When I was a little kid, all I wanted was a metal detector, so we got Jamal a metal detector.

Would you have gone on that whole adventure to find the money too? Haft: Oh, absolutely. I still have go-bags at home!

Gonzalez: Everywhere! In the car.

Haft: I actually do have a go-bag in the car right now. I have a full earthquake preparedness kit. I have baseball bats for any sort of danger. Other weapons in my car. I have numerous sprays, lotions. A Gatorade. An emergency snack. Some soup. I have it all.

Monse grows a lot in the second season. She gets to know her mother, which breaks her heart. Can you talk about Monse’s journey?
Gonzalez: We wanted to do the reverse of the stereotype where the dad’s gone and it’s just the mom. Monse idealizes this woman. And by the end, she tells her mom, “You’re so disappointing.” That’s the worst thing she could say. As part of her journey, she’s looking for that role model. But you know where the role model is? It’s in the mirror. That’s what the role model is. That’s why she becomes Team Monse.

Haft: Monse’s mom is troubled. I don’t think she’s a bad person, necessarily, but troubled and gray and maybe we’ll explore that more. But she’s a poisonous influence for Monse at this time. Monse knows to get away and she’s got what she needs. It’s her father. Sometimes it’s right before your eyes. You just got to see it.

What’s been the most gratifying reaction you’ve had to the show? Gonzalez: I had a personal one, and then one on Twitter. There was a girl who was going through a very rough period in her life because she just didn’t fit in. She saw Jamal and she said she was like, “It’s okay to be quirky.” It was beautiful. [Tears up.] And then my niece asks me, “Tio, can I get a picture with you?” And I was like, “Sweetie, you have 1,000 pictures with me.” And she’s like, “Yeah, but I wanna show my friends. They don’t believe you created On My Block.” That got me.

Haft: So many people DM us on Twitter and Insta. This is from 12-year-olds to 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds, where someone is saying, “I’ve never seen myself on TV, thank you for telling my story. Thank you for not showing the area that I grew up in as some dark, bleak crappy place.” Hearing that from kids is great, but when I hear it from people who for 40 years have never seen themselves authentically, that means a lot.

Gonzalez: I went to a funeral, of all places, last year and I’m walking in and this guy looks at me. Don’t know who this guy is. He’s staring at me. Why is this guy looking at me? So he turns to me and goes, “Hey, where’s your ice cream truck?” I’m like, Ice cream truck? Is he making fun of my suit or what? And he goes, “You’re that dude, you’re the paletero!” It was so weird.

Wait, the creep that’s selling ice cream and hitting on Monse was you? Gonzalez: [Laughs.] When we’d talk about it in the writers room, I was really creepy about it so Lauren told me I had to do it. It was a fun thing, but I was not expecting it to come up at a funeral. By the way, all of our writers except for Rob [Sudduth] appeared in the first season. The opening sequence as you’re going through the party house, you see all our writers sitting there, smoking out. When Alexis Gonzalez, our associate producer, walks out of the refrigerator holding a piece of chicken and two gentlemen take it, those are our story consultants Kyland and Walter. The Prophets are Fran [Gailes] and Adam [Starks] and Arlyn Richardson, our post-production supervisor.

Haft: We are low-budget show. We can’t afford everything, so we gotta put them in.

Gonzalez: About 70 percent of those photos throughout Ruby’s house are my family. When they open the refrigerator in the cold open, that’s my sister and my nephews. The cobija, the blanket that is on the couch, my mom knitted that for my wedding. My mom was watching the first episode, and the first thing that catches her eye, “Mijo es mi cobija.” [Son, that’s my blanket.] It’s something really special that will live on forever.

How On My Block Avoided Becoming an ‘After-school Special’