Many TV shows present the same bleak image of inner-city life: police sirens, housing projects, gangs. But that’s changing with Netflix’s “On My Block,” which premieres March 16.
“Every time a show or movie talks about gangs, it loves to show the violent parts,” says Jason Genao, 21, who stars in the half-hour dramedy. “For me, gangs are like stores and restaurants. It’s just something there where I live [in Jersey City].”
“Everyone in this show minus maybe two people were of color, and that’s so rare,” says Genao, who’s Dominican (his character, Ruby, is Mexican). “[Growing up] I wondered if it was even possible for me to be an actor, because I don’t look like people I saw onscreen. I hope ‘On My Block’ shows people who don’t believe these sort of opportunities exist for them do exist.”
‘Every time a show or movie talks about gangs, it loves to show the violent parts. For me, gangs are like stores and restaurants. It’s just something there where I live.’
Ruby isn’t in a gang but his friend Cesar (Diego Tinoco) is. Since it’s a family legacy for Cesar, scenes with gangs are interspersed with the those about the teens’ home lives. The show’s co-creator Eddie Gonzalez says, “I’m not trying to glorify gangs by any means — I’m saying it is nuanced and there is more to [gang life] than someone just banging for the sake of it. You see that in the relationship with Cesar and his brother, Oscar.”
Gonzalez, 49, who co-created the show with Lauren Iungerich (“Awkward”) and Jeremy Haft (“Empire”), based on his own experience. He was born in Compton, Calif., grew up in nearby Lynwood, and comes from a large Mexican family — 7 siblings and 117 first cousins.
“Lauren wanted to do something on the inner city, but she needed to team up with people who know that space,” he says. “The moment we [started talking] we felt this connection, because even though I grew up in a dangerous neighborhood, Jeremy, Lauren and I had these same aspirations. We all wanted this kind of John Hughes existence.”
Gonzalez says in addition to his own life and John Hughes films such as “Sixteen Candles” (1984), another major inspiration was 1985’s “The Goonies.”
“These kids share a common thread that a kid in Kentucky can relate to, a kid in Florida, a kid Seattle. I’d love for kids in the inner city to go, ‘they got it right.’ But if it’s connecting with other kids and adults, that’s great, too. I want 30 and 40 year-olds to connect to it. [It has] universal themes.”
To make the dynamic between the friends feel genuine, Genao says the core cast members shared an Airbnb for the duration of the production shoot in Burbank. “We were living together for 2 weeks before the show even started and as it filmed, so [our friendship] was authentic.”
“The thing about growing up in neighborhoods [like Freeridge] is there’s this tendency to go, ‘Oh, we’re victims,’ says Gonzalez. “We don’t need to be saved, we just need to be heard. Our show is hopeful; it’s bright. Growing up, I was enjoying high school much like Lauren and Jeremy. We all wanted the same things — to fit in, to be popular.”