Why ‘On My Block’ is more than your average teen drama

Somewhere in the Netflix office, a group of marketing masterminds are celebrating. They’ve worked long hours, watched enviable amounts of television, and have scoured every corner of social media to stay one step ahead of the trends. It’s a move that has well and truly paid off, largely in the form of teen-targeted television.

In a press release shared in December 2018, Netflix revealed the most-binged programmes from the calendar year—and the numbers don’t lie. The top ten featured the usual suspects like 13 Reasons Why: Season 2, Bodyguard (side note: if you haven’t watched Bodyguard yet, you’re missing out), and the sixth season of Orange Is the New Black.

But the top spot was claimed by none other than On My Block, the high school drama whose debut season represents the kind of content I pay my monthly subscription for. On My Block follows the lives of four inseparable fourteen-year-olds: Cesar (Diego Tinoco) Jamal (Brett Gray), Monse (Sierra Capri) and Ruby (Jason Genao). The intricacies and depth of these relationships would be enough to hook you in alone; add the overarching theme of gang-related violence in a bad neighbourhood and the recipe of this series was destined for success.

The writers of OMB strike a comfortable balance between regular teen drama and the kind of issues unique to a neighbourhood like Freeridge throughout each episode. We witness the squad challenged by the addition of new member, Olivia (Ronni Hawk), complications arising with the newfound affection between Cesar and Monse, and countless dangers presenting themselves as a result of Cesar’s gang association. It’s enough to send any adult into a state of constant anxiety, but these kids know how to handle themselves.

One of the most important aspects of OMB is no secret; the show’s diversity receives constant praise from fans and critics alike. How refreshing it is to see an English-language show incorporating Spanish in the most casual manner possible. How ridiculous that we previously excluded other languages purely to make watching television simpler for those who aren’t fortunate enough to be bilingual (I’ve never felt lazier for speaking just one language than when I hear Ruby’s family swapping seamlessly between dialects). To hear these actors speaking more than one language is a skill I admire every time the subtitles appear on screen. I can only imagine the pride Spanish-speakers feel when such an integral part of their culture is represented on screen, not only in the physical characteristics of cast members, but in the simple act of including Spanish lines. It’s long overdue in the commercial sphere and a move that only adds to the beauty of OMB.

This authenticity continues with the insight into gang culture that OMB portrays. There’s a scene at the very beginning of the first episode where our heroes retreat from a house party with the sound of gunshots ringing in the air, each of them guessing what kind of weapon is firing the bullets. It’s a confronting scene, albeit in a subtle way. The fact that these kids know how to recognise a gunshot is incredible and a stark reflection of what real people live with every day. To grow up surrounded by violence and still maintain the inherent goodness each of these four kids displays is a wondrous thing. From that instant, you root for them.

On My Block isn’t your typical teenage drama. You won’t find New York socialites arguing over a Prada handbag or suburban high schoolers caught up in a murder-mystery. Instead, you’ll find the kind of truth we don’t often see on screen in such a young cast. You’ll see friendships challenged, relationships develop, and lives put at risk. You’ll meet characters you can’t liken to any you’ve seen before, and who you can’t help but fall in love with (it’s no surprise Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia) plays a more central role in the show’s second season). You’ll witness a life you might be able to relate to, or perhaps a series of events that are as foreign to you as the languages spoken on screen. But that’s where the true beauty of this show lies: you’re going to learn something. You’re going to learn about friendship and about love, about perseverance and resilience.

And you’ll do so with some of the most multifaceted, unique and important characters to be represented on screen in years.

In squad we trust.

Image via Netflix.

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