On My Block is Netflix's next groundbreaking show because it's unlike anything else we've seen on television.
The show is about black and Latino kids in the tough neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, and though they have to deal with the ever-present threat of gang violence, they also have loving families and tight-knit communities and each other. To these kids, the universal teenage experiences of falling in love for the first time and getting in fights with your friends feel just as consequential as the life-threatening ones. A certain hood may have its own unique challenges, but high school is hard anywhere, and sometimes it's really, really fun.
The show feels like an authentic representation of what it's like to grow up in South Central (or Independence Heights in Houston or the South Bronx in New York City or any number of communities of color throughout the country). It can be heavy, but it can also be really, really funny. These kinds of stories are still rare on TV, but the people making the show hope that changes.
"I grew up not in South Central but in a place that is relatable to South Central more so than, like, Brentwood is," says Jersey City, New Jersey native Jason Genao, who plays the overdramatic, kindhearted aspiring ladies' man Ruben "Ruby" Martinez. "So I think if I wasn't in the show and just watching it I would have been so glad that someone who looked like me got to make a show. There'd be hope, like 'Oh my God, he's doing that? Maybe I could do that too.' It becomes more of a reality for people that possibilities are on the horizon."
"In real life we actually all are from different sides of the country," adds Sierra Capri, who's from Atlanta and plays Monse Finnie, a tomboy whose heart gets her in a lot of trouble. "So bringing that to the show as well as our own individual personalities, it brings a lot of diversity. I think a lot of people will appreciate that because there's nothing like that right now on Netflix or any media platform, for that matter."
She's right; On My Block feels different than just about anything else on TV. Netflix has carved out a niche as a place for young adult programming that respects teens' intelligence and maturity (and appeals to adults, too). On My Block slots in nicely with Netflix's other groundbreaking young adult programming like 13 Reasons Why, The End of the F---ing World and Everything Sucks! because it's not like any of them (and they are not like each other). For one, there are almost no white people on it. It centralizes black and Latino characters — and points of view — in a way that feels like a matter of course. And that extended behind the camera, too.
"We had Asian directors, Latino producers, Latino writers, African-American writers," says Diego Tinoco, who's from California and plays Cesar Diaz, a young man who is caught between his desire to have a normal high school life and the criminal birthright he inherited as the brother of fearsome gangbanger Oscar aka Spooky (Julio Mascias). "Everybody on screen is of color and everybody on the crew is of color."
He's exaggerating a bit — co-creators Lauren Iungerich and Jeremy Haft are white; the third co-creator, Haft's writing partner Eddie Gonzalez, is Latino. But the show is uncommonly inclusive.
It's also uncommonly apolitical for a show whose very existence in 2018 feels politicized. It sublimates whatever agenda it may have by just, y'know, allowing its characters to be real people.
"It's not political, it's informative," says Capri. "And I think that's the main thing that people will take away from this, and that is needed right now with everything that's going on. People just need to be informed."
"This how people like us live," says Philadelphia native Brett Gray, who plays class clown Jamal Turner. "This is how our lives are."
Jamal spends much of the season on a treasure hunt to find cash that went missing after a heist at a roller rink in the disco era, so it's not always literally how their lives are. But it captures the spirit of growing up in a place like South Central, the struggle as well as the joy. No matter who you are, it makes you care about ordinary, imperfect black and Latino kids.
On My Block is now streaming on Netflix.