This Is What Teen Dramas Should Look Like: “On My Block” Review
March 3, 2021
What do you think of when you think of “teen drama”? What most of these “teen dramas” have in common is that they lack even a shred of realism. Take the “The Kissing Booth” for instance. It’s a show played by a bunch of grown men and women about a bunch of entitled teens whose biggest problems are “does he really love me?” I mean, c’mon. Sorry to break it to you, Elle, but there are bigger problems in this world than getting your dream boy. And that’s why “On My Block” is such a refreshing newcomer to the teen drama world.
The protagonists of “On My Block” are a tight-knit quartet of black and brown teenagers from a rough inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles. They face a plethora of important, real-life problems including poverty, deportation, homelessness, gang violence, police brutality, and racism. The show approaches their extraordinary adversity with extraordinary empathy. But unlike series such as “The Society,” the writers balance the gravity of their circumstances with plenty of humor and and explorations of more silly kid problems like breakups and friend drama. By not taking itself too seriously most of time, “On My Block” allows its little moments to sizzle. Let’s take a deeper look at each element of this show and review each one-by-one.
The first thing to tackle is the setting. “On My Block” is based in the fictional but all-too-realistic Freeridge—a crime-ridden, impoverished inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles. The way that “On My Block” so smoothly and elegantly weaves the environment into the story, without having it feel too perturbing, is an applaudable feat. Oftentimes the true essence of Freeridge is communicated through subtle details, like the fact that the main cast’s school has a metal detector upon entrance. Or the fact that the main cast has a game where they try to guess the caliber of gun fired, illustrating how ubiquitous violence is in the area. Sometimes elements of setting are folded into the story itself. I can’t really tell you any more without giving away plot points. The main idea is, Freeridge is a courageous choice for a setting to a teen drama, but “On My Block” manages to educate its viewership about the hardships its main characters face without letting those hardships define them.
A+ in this category.
I can’t review a show without actually talking about the element that defines it: characters. The protagonists of this story are a quirky, inseparable quartet that inform fascinating discussion about the power of friendship through unimaginable trauma. There’s Monse, the complex, emotional, and erratic heroine that acts as a sort of mother figure to the group. Jamal is the anxious, offbeat, but lovable pedant who is often ignored. Ruby is the tiny kid with a big character: a surprisingly endearing mix of nerdy, lustful, and verbose. And then there’s Cesar. Deprived of a mother and father and raised by his brother and local gang leader Oscar, Cesar faces unimaginable adversity and trauma in his life. But his friends help him through it; throughout the series, their bond is one strengthened by courage, resilience, and empathy. It’s also important to remember that these characters are 14-15 years old—our age. In fact, a little younger. And yet, they face issues that we in Darien will never understand. But despite its heavy themes, friendship shines like a beacon in “On My Block,” leaving an aftertaste of hope and promise.
Now, there are some character flaws I want to bring up.
Monse’s character: she’s kind of…annoying. She’s petty, erratic, and pedantic. I understand that she is subject to immense hardships including lacking a mother, racism, sexism, and gang violence. But she acts in unlikeable and at times completely illogical ways, which makes her character confusing and hard to digest. Maybe that’s the point. People have flaws. But I found her annoying traits to be overpowering her resilience and intelligence at times, which is tragic considering she serves at such a great role model.
Jamal’s character: don’t ignore the guy! Cesar, Monse, Ruby: they are all richly layered and compelling heroes and heroines who undergo extensive character development. But what about Jamal. The biggest story arc Jamal is given is the whole situation with feeling pressured into playing football. Yes, parental pressure is an important and relavant issue, but his experiences don’t even compare to what Monse, Cesar, and Ruby endure. Much like the friend group itself, the writers neglect Jamal’s character, which is tragic considering he has really interesting character traits that are screaming to be explored in greater depth. During season 3 he does get a pretty considerable amount of evolution, but a more even story arc would have benefited “On My Block” as a whole greatly.
Overall, A- in this category.
Onto the story, which in my opinion, is probably the weakest element of the show. Throughout season 1, the story arc felt slightly uneven and at times outlandish, but it still maintained its momentum and energy and remained inspired by real-world issues. Season 2 is where things started to go downhill plot-wise. The story moved in a more outlandish and at times comical direction, and the rythym and assurance that kept the plot compelling seemed to uncoil. Don’t get me wrong. The series still maintained its endearing feel and character development throughout all the seasons. In fact, I feel as though the latter seasons were even more powerful than the first. But story-wise, the writers made some bizzare choices.
B- in this category.
Humor! “On My Block” was hilarious, the earthy humor usually centered around the more light-hearted aspects of the show like breakups, romance, friend drama, and cheating.
A+ in this category.
Overall rating: A-