In a mid-season episode of On My Block, Netflix’s latest attempt at bottling US high school culture, Jamal, a fast-talking 14-year-old, finds a golden bullet in a children’s sandbox while searching for clues in his quest for an elusive treasure.
Brushing past his shock, he quips: “I’m just gonna wipe my prints off and put this right back”, and gets on with the hunt.
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This, we come to understand very quickly, is just part of life in inner city Los Angeles, the setting for this highly binge-able teen dramedy.
The series opens with protagonists Monse, Ruby, Jamal and Cesar, a mixed group of Latino and black teens preparing for their first year in high school. Their typical adolescent anxieties are outweighed by a greater fear – that Cesar’s membership in a local gang known as Los Santos (Saints) threatens to derail his academic career altogether.
While gangland LA has been thoroughly documented in popular culture (Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood, Dope, all west coast hip-hop), we rarely get an insight into the lives of teens who are just trying to live like, well, teens.
Refreshingly, the core group in On My Block are set apart from the sinister goings on of the neighbourhood, Cesar’s travails aside. Sure, they know how to distinguish the gunshots of a .38 from a .49, but their time is spent avoiding violence rather than being drawn into it.
Ruby, Jamal and Marce are nerdy outcasts who would slot right in with the Stranger Things kids, and they deal with the kinds of dramas typical of TV high school students. Monse searches for her mother, who left when she was a baby, and Jamal find creative ways to avoid telling his football-obsessed parents that he quit the team due to fear of injury. A burgeoning relationship turns into a love triangle, and, later, a square.
Diego Tinoco (Cesar Diaz) in On My Block
70 per cent of the time, the series operates as a typical high school episodic, pitching somewhere between the quirky comedy of Freaks and Geeks and the melodrama of The OC. But the threat of violence is never far away, and as the series progresses, it begins to spill over into their sanctuary.
Cesar’s friends try, on several occasions, to free him from the hold of the gang he was born into – his older brother, Oscar ‘Spooky’ Diaz, is a leading member. But, every time we think he’s out, they pull him back in. It’s the only cynical element in a series that bursts with positivity.
The juxtaposition of melodrama and actual, life-threatening violence does not always work, often jarring with the bubbly tone of the show. And a side-plot, which sees Jamal on a desperate hunt for a $250,000 treasure, tends towards the absurd.
But these drawbacks don’t manage to derail the series, which is pretty hard to switch off after three or four episodes as it hurtles towards a shocking finale. And, amidst plenty of cheesy dialogue there are a few nuggets of wisdom on race and privilege. For my money, Monse’s remark that “only white kids find treasure”, as the gang speculates about the possibility of tracking down a large bag of cash, outdoes any of the Goonies references in Stranger Things.