If the weeks in the wake of Parkland have taught us anything, it’s that high schoolers are a lot sharper, a lot cooler and a lot tougher than they’re given credit for. That’s probably not news to Netflix, which has quickly put together an impressive arsenal of original programming featuring young characters — from smash hits “Stranger Things” and “13 Reasons Why” to sleeper favorites “Everything Sucks!” and “American Vandal.”
“On My Block,” a new half-hour comedy-drama from “Awkward” creator Lauren Iungerich, is a welcome addition to the lineup. It’s a sharp, moving series set in South Central Los Angeles and centered around children of color, who — though pop culture might lead you to believe otherwise — actually come of age, too.
The show follows four lifelong best friends as they navigate their freshman year of high school. There’s headstrong tomboy Monse (newcomer Sierra Capri), high-strung Jamal (Brett Gray, “Rise”), suave Ruby (Jason Genao, “The Get Down”) and sensitive Cesar (Diego Tinoco, “Teen Wolf”). The quartet is joined later by Olivia (Ronni Hawk, “Stuck in the Middle”), who moves in with Ruby’s family when her parents are deported.
There are story beats that feel familiar — drama surrounding the school dance, complicated love triangles, the pressure of family expectations. But there are also plenty of elements we don’t often see on television that keep the show original and fresh. Cesar struggles to break away from the gang life men in his family are forced into; Olivia is crushed that her parents won’t be around for her quinceañera.
It all makes for a show that’s tonally interesting. Storylines that are full of laughs, like Jamal’s madcap quest for buried treasure stolen from a roller rink, find themselves alongside much heavier arcs, like Monse’s search for her biological mother. Fortunately, for the most part, the show’s young stars have the acting chops to pull it off.
It’s largely thanks to them that “On My Block” manages that emotional whiplash quite well. The constant teetering between comedy and drama gives rise to some exposition-heavy writing and stiff performances at first, but the show’s ambitions pay off by the season’s final episodes, when everything really falls into place. And the initially disparate narrative strands converge and crescendo in a genuinely shocking finale that begs for a second season.
The show’s real strength lies in its characters, who feel immediately real and lived-in, as if they’re old friends we’ve known our whole lives. It makes every triumph they experience a little sweeter and every disappointment a bit more heartbreaking. Monse, Jamal, Ruby, Cesar and Olivia aren’t the types of characters whose stories usually get told on television, but they’re each so compelling that it’s impossible not to fall in love with them. And though the show doesn’t make any mention of politics, there’s something about watching teenagers of color take up space and speak their mind that feels almost revolutionary.
It’s no surprise that some of the most affecting, enjoyable works on screen in the past year — from “Lady Bird” to “Dear White People” to “Love, Simon” — have been modern portraits of young adulthood in all of its joy and confusion and awakening. “On My Block” brings more needed diversity to the coming-of-age canon, and does so with a charm and charisma that’s simply irresistible.