Coming-of-age stories are a cornerstone of American film and television. Good ones appeal to every age group, accurately portraying the process of growing up for those going through it and creating nostalgia for those who have already completed it.
Through the years there have been hundreds of these types of stories, but there’s never been one quite like “On My Block.”
“On My Block,” released Friday on Netflix, is a 10-episode series from Lauren Iungerich, creator of MTV’s “Awkward.” It stars Diego Tinoco, Sierra Capri, Brett Gray and Jason Genao — all young actors in the beginning years of their careers.
The show is focuses on four teenagers from inner-city Los Angeles and their transition from middle school into high school. It touches on normal coming-of-age topics like discovering one’s sexuality and awkward school dances, but also dives into the specific issues of the kids’ environment, like gang violence and racial issues.
The show is a bit reminiscent of “Big Mouth,” another Netflix coming-of-age series that came out last September. That show, an animated comedy from John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, was unflinchingly crass and consistently relentless in its exploration of puberty, making it a show that would have never aired on a cable network.
“On My Block” was created in a similar vein. While it’s certainly a bit more reserved than “Big Mouth,” there are plenty of scenes that would have traditional network executives shaking their heads. The show can be the best version of itself because of the free reign that Netflix provides.
The show’s situations feel real, fresh and new. The characters’ problems are specific to them, their neighborhood, their class and their race. More importantly, the characters’ problems aren’t often depicted in mainstream entertainment.
An example of this is a scene near the beginning of the first episode, where the four teenagers hear a gunshot and take turns guessing what type of gun was fired. Gunfire is a mundane part of their lives, and this scene sets that tone quite nicely.
For the most part, the characters talk how most teenagers talk, swearing and using slang. That being said, some characters deliver lines that are not only individually out of character, but entirely out of touch with the way people normally talk.
This would be fine if the show presented itself as a straight drama, but the show makes such an effort to portray these stories realistically and accurately. When a freshman in high school goes on a 90-second monologue in the middle of the hallway, it’s somewhat distracting. Suddenly, it feels as if the actors are reading straight off a script.
A good amount of the time this is a result of bad acting and directing, not writing. Capri, who plays Monse Finnie, is the biggest culprit of this. Out of the four leads, she has the least acting experience and, unfortunately, it shows.
Consistency is the main issue here, but the young actress shows a lot of promise. The lesser moments are just especially disappointing because her character is so strong and interesting during the rest of the show.
The rest of the cast fairs better, although they do each have their own hiccups in certain scenes. It feels almost as if these young actors would be perfect for roles on Disney Channel, and that’s less of a slight than it sounds. There’s no question that the cast has talent. They just all could have benefited with a bit more experience before they came to these rather intensive roles.
The one exception is Tinoco, who plays Cesar Diaz. Tinoco embodies the essence of his character perfectly, acting more with just his face and body than his co-stars do with many of their lines. His character is stuck in the middle — between his brother’s gang and his high school friends — and Tinoco portrays this struggle fantastically.
“I don’t wanna spend the rest of my life thinking about dying,” he says, in a particularly good scene, “so I’m just gonna live.”
“On My Block” is not interesting or worth watching just because it’s a great television show. It’s a somewhat mediocre coming-of-age story, and there have been more than enough of those throughout the years. Rather, “On My Block” is important and exciting because it’s a mediocre coming-of-age story starring solely people of color.
The show isn’t going to win any Emmys, but it doesn’t have to in order to have cultural relevance. The show was made for a specific audience, and that audience is going to find something extremely familiar and comfortable in “On My Block.”