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April 22, 2019

The Block

Netflix’s On My Block depicts a reality its creators know all too well.

Tom Knapp
  • Jeremy Haft, Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez

    Nicola Goode/Netflix
  • Jessica Marie Garcia, Danny Ramirez, Jason Genao

    Nicola Goode/Netflix
  • Jeremy Haft, Sierra Capri

    Nicola Goode/Netflix
  • Diego Tinoco, Brett Gray, Sierra Capri

    Nicola Goode/Netflix
  • Jason Genao, Jessica Marie Garcia

    Nicola Goode/Netflix
  • Pauline Edwards, Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, Eddie Gonzalez, Xavier Thompson, Ryan Shiraki, Jeremy Haft

    Nicola Goode/Netflix

There's no word yet on a third season of On My Block, but the popular Netflix series ended its second 10-episode run with a cliffhanger just as edge-of-your-seat frustrating as the first.

The series, which follows a group of teens in Freeridge, a fictional inner-city neighborhood in southern California, closed its first season with a celebration, a first kiss, shots fired and two popular characters down -- condition unknown.

The second season, which followed the group as they coped with the aftermath of the shooting and the growing gang threat in their community, ended with a sudden kidnapping that almost seems worthy of a Men in Black script.

Series co-creator Jeremy Haft laughs at the notion.

"I don't see us going sci-fi on this show," he says, during a recent telephone interview. "But now that you mention it, who knows?"

That's assuming, of course, that Netflix greenlights another season, which is still in the wind.

"No word yet," Haft's writing partner, Eddie Gonzalez, says. "We're optimistic, and we feel good about it."

This isn't Gonzalez and Haft's first collaboration. Previous work together includes the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me and an episode in the first season of Empire.

They, along with co-creator Lauren Iungerich, are still basking in the success of this new series, which was widely dubbed "binge-worthy" when its first season dropped in 2018 and has gotten an equally strong response from the follow-up, which released on Netflix in late March.

"We don't have anything scripted" for the third season, Gonzalez says. "We have tentpole ideas. We know we want to go here, we want to go there, but the actual specifics ... we'll get into that when we know we have a season 3."

So, the futures of Monse (Sierra Capri), Ruby (Jason Genao), Jamal (Brett Gray) and Cesar (Diego Tinoco) remain uncertain for now. Last we saw them (spoilers follow, if you haven't yet finished season 2), they'd had black bags thrown over their heads before being tossed in a nondescript van. (End spoilers.)

It's a dark twist that viewers could not have seen coming.

"We have nothing against happy endings," Gonzalez insists. "We love happy endings. If you met us, you'd realize we're very positive people."

But, he says, when you grow up in a place like Freeridge - which he did; the neighborhood is loosely based on Compton, where he was born, and Lynwood, where he was raised - "you realize there's both comedy and tragedy. It's not just a bleak place."

But some pretty bleak things keep happening. Haft says the first season of the series "was more of a comedy, with some drama." Season 2, he says, "was probably more of a drama, with elements of comedy."

A lot of that focuses on the character of Ruby, who is dealing with post-traumatic stress and survivor's guilt.

"It was very important to us that this not be an after-school special, where Ruby is sad for one episode and the gang gets together and makes him feel better - and, by the end of the episode, he's back to normal," Haft says. "That's not normal behavior. It comes and goes."

Similarly, he says, Cesar, who was the intended target, and Monse, who witnessed the shooting during a moment of pure joy, may have emotional consequences down the road.

"The most important thing for us in creating the show was to be authentic and not just fall into tropes," Haft says. "We wanted to show three-dimensional characters, and a vibrant, authentic neighborhood.

"It's not just 'He's bad, he's in a gang. He's good, he's not in a gang.' It's not that simple."

That's why, for instance, the character of gang leader Oscar, aka Spooky (Julio Macias), isn't a cut-and-dried villain. He's Cesar's brother who, inarguably, does some bad things and has drawn his younger kin into a dangerous lifestyle. But he also puts his neck on the line to protect Cesar sometimes, and he has a quirky fondness for Ruby.

"No one is born bad, they're not born to do something nefarious," Gonzalez explains. "People make choices for specific reasons. It's not always black and white."

"We flip from drama to comedy so quickly because that's life," Haft adds. "You turn the corner, there could be a stray bullet. Or an intentional bullet. There's a sense of dread."

At the same time, the series offers humor in many forms. One fan-favorite character is Chivo (Emilio Rivera), who has an almost mystical relationship with his extensive collection of garden gnomes, or "gnomeys."

Even their inherent goofiness has a serious side, however. In season 2, Chivo reveals each gnome represents to him a friend who has died through gang violence.

Many of the cast and crew involved in On My Block have had experiences like the characters on the series.

Gonzalez admits that the diminutive, long-suffering Ruby is based somewhat on his life, from his Catholic upbringing to the relationship with his brother and his eclectic group of friends.

"I went through a lot of it," he says. "I did not lose a girlfriend or a first kiss to a gunshot, but I had friends who were gang members. We were tight. ... I was caught in a drive-by as a kid. I've had guns pulled on me."

Haft, on the other hand, says he identifies most with Jamal, with his love of gadgets and conspiracy theories. Monse, he adds, "is based on Lauren, without a doubt. She's very quick-witted. Whip-smart. She's the glue of the crew."

They credit some of the success of the series to the cast, who also identify strongly with the parts they play.

"Our kids - our main cast - grew up in a world that is somewhat similar," Haft explains. "Different, obviously, but all of them grew up in a world that was similar to Freeridge. They're not walking into characters that they've never seen in their life. Jason, for instance - he had a cousin who was in the life, and he got shot. He's seen this.

"But they've never seen these characters on television. That's exciting for them, and it's exciting for us."

It's exciting for the viewers, too.

"We get all these DMs on Twitter from fans of the show who say they've never seen themselves represented on TV before," Haft says. "We get a lot of 'Thank you for showing me so accurately.' That's very flattering for us."

"We thought it would connect with kids in the inner city," Gonzalez adds. "We were pleasantly surprised how it has connected with kids from other places in the world. We get tweets from kids in India, from Brazil. Kids saying 'I'm Monse,' or 'I'm Cesar.' We're blown away by that."

Freeridge, too, is something of a character in the series. The writers agree that depicting Freeridge as a realistic place, with the sights, sounds and tension of its real-life counterparts, was an important part of their process.

"We wanted viewers to have a visceral reaction to it," Gonzalez says.

That, along with a strong core of supporting characters - including parents, siblings, even an antagonistic football coach - could help the show's longevity.

"The series could go on for years," Haft says. "It's about two things: our core kids, and the neighborhood. There are a lot of stories to tell."

"There's no shortage of stories," Gonzalez adds. "We don't have an expiration date in mind."

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