This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (2023)

As I exited my middle school years and faced the frequently-fictionalized but never-not-daunting prospect of high school, I decided that ABC, the television network, was trying to ruin my life. First, in 1989, they premiered the television show Family Matters, which would provide a vehicle for the indomitable rise of Steve Urkel. Suddenly, my classmates, most of whom were white, had a cultural reference point for me. I was no Theo Huxtable; everybody knew that. But slight, nerdy, prone to wild crushes and high-waisted pants? Oh and black? All anyone saw was Urkel.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (1)

Jaleel White as Steve Urkel

Then ABC, those monsters, premiered teen drama My So-Called Life in 1994 and with it Wilson Cruz's character, Ricky. Ricky and I shared light skin tones, truly excellent personalities, a cadre of female friends and an effeminate manner. The only thing: Ricky was one of the first openly gay characters on television. At that time, I was very much not openly gay. But once again the scales fell from my classmates' eyes and, as I entered high school, I went from being that Urkel kid to being that Ricky kid. I wrote a very strongly-worded letter to ABC that ended "Why do you hate me?"

As an adult, I am deeply grateful for Cruz's work on My So-Called Life. Although I felt too seen in a moment when I was trying to blend, it was one of the first times I saw a portrait of my intersecting identities—person of color, queer person, teen—on television. That's lasted far longer and had a much deeper effect than the discomfort of the moment. I suppose I've even come to a grudging respect for Jaleel White's deft physical comedy on Family Matters. And so when a willowy, nebbish, black boy performed a perfect pratfall in On My Block, the superb new teen dramedy that just premiered on Netflix, I guffawed with recognition and respect.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (4)

Brett Gray as Jamal in On My Block

To be clear, Brett Gray, who plays South Central teen Jamal in the high school series, is not portraying an Urkel type. Though he's as gifted a comedian as Jaleel White, one can trace his frequently flustered, floppy-limbed character to a much larger trope in teen narratives. Jamal has a little bit of Ethan Embry's Preston in Can't Hardly Wait, a little bit of Riverdale's Jughead, a little bit of Brian from The Breakfast Club. But unlike those icons, Jamal is a person of color. And that's one of the things that's so remarkable and so refreshing about On the Block.

Co-created by Lauren Iungerich (creator of Awkward), Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft, the new half-hour show follows a group of four friends as they navigate interpersonal challenges coinciding with their ascent to high school and their comings-of-age. It's a story that's been frequently fictionalized, including on another new Netflix series, Everything Sucks! (more on that in a minute). On My Block, however, chooses to play out well-known teen drama using people of color in a lower-middle class neighborhood in South Central, Los Angeles. The result is stunning. First loves and first heartbreaks, grade stress, parents who just don't understand intermingle with class struggles and the threat of gang violence. While the show could easily come off feeling like a pandering after-school special—"Latinx teens go to Homecoming, too!"—it actually feels like one of the most fully realized pictures of this fraught, frequently portrayed time period.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (6)

The cast of On My Block

On My Block leaps head first into intersections, not only of identities, but of genres. It's tonally superb; moments of hilarity and slapstick elevate four deeply-felt, intricate storylines. Jamal's quest to find a hidden treasure gets equal time with Cesar's (Diego Tinoco) struggle to avoid joining his brother's gang and the saga of Ruby (Jason Genao) who has fallen hard for Olivia (Ronni Hawk), a girl who comes to stay with Ruby's family after her parents are deported. Each character feels simultaneously familiar from years of teen angst dramas and comedies, while also so clearly and specifically a person of color in this moment in America. Indeed, I don't remember seeing a non-POC face until five episodes in. It didn't feel strange; it didn't feel revolutionary; it felt like home.

While the boys in the central group are all endearing and compellingly played, I'd argue that On My Block belongs to the group's sole female member, Monse, played by spectacular newcomer Sierra Capri. Monse is so multi-dimensional she practically leaps out of the screen. Monse has family drama, friend drama, love drama, but she is not a victim of any of the circumstances in which she finds herself. This is particularly refreshing. Frequently, a female lead is forced to react to the whims and hijinks of her male counterparts. Monse is both the mastermind behind much of the group’s scheming and the neurotic activator of the plot. In one particularly delightful sequence, she verbally cycles through waves of feminism as part-farce, part-gamesmanship, and part discovery.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (8)

Monse (Sierra Capri) in On My Block

If On My Block is the intersectional picture of teen life that we need right now, perhaps Everything Sucks! is the similarly complex picture we needed years ago. Set in Boring, Oregon in the early '90s, it is both a beautiful blast of Tori Amos-tinged nostalgia that I refuse to let make me feel old, and a stunning reframing of a well-told story. As with On My Block, when I watch Everything Sucks! I see myself, I see my life; I feel central in my own story.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (10)

Peyton Kennedy and Jahi Di’Allo Winston in Everything Sucks!

While Everything Sucks! boasts a much less diverse cast than On My Block, its lead characters are a mixed-race boy and a white lesbian girl, a first for the teen dramedy canon. Jahi Di'Allo Winston's Luke O'Neil is a film geek being raised by his black mother. While it's occasionally jarring that Luke, seemingly the only black kid at his school, never has to reckon with, well, being black in small-town Oregon in the '90s, Winston has an exuberance and a guilelessness that communicates with a much larger narrative. It's clear that Everything Sucks! wants us to understand Luke as part of the tradition of baleful, lovelorn, film-obsessed teen leads. Luke, for better or worse, belongs in the company of Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything, or Sixteen Candles' Ted. That a black character gets to be completely driven by his love of film and his media-inspired idea of love without questioning the lack of representative models feels like a fantasy, but perhaps a welcome one.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (12)

It also makes him a bit of a problem for Kate Messner, the principal's daughter and the object of Luke's affection. Kate, in a transcendent, natural performance by Peyton Kennedy, is also slowly acknowledging her sexuality. Kate's desire to stay closeted dovetails with Luke's desire to romance her, and they two strike up an arrangement. While On My Block packs its plot with activity and drama, high and low, Everything Sucks! lingers on its characters interiority in a way that is deeply satisfying and often rare for non-white, non-straight characters.

There is a moment in the sixth episode, entitled "Sometimes I Hear My Voice" that takes place at a Tori Amos concert. While "Silent All These Years" plays in the soundtrack, the camera pans ever so slowly from Luke's enraptured expression to Kate's awestruck face and then to two women, dancing and kissing in Kate's periphery. It is a masterful moment, so delicate and so luxurious. And so familiar.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (14)

Luke Winston in Everything Sucks!

Netflix often takes flack for their aggressive programming schedule; its almost impossible to keep up with all the content the network puts out. But by embracing a strategy that allows them to say yes to, seemingly, everything, the network has the opportunity to elevate stories and modes of storytelling that heretofore have been sidelined. On My Block and Everything Sucks! will appeal to anyone who wants to take a trip back to the awkward, wonderstruck adventure that is being a teenager. But they'll also speak—deeply, clearly, and authentically—to many who went through their teenage years thinking "maybe I'm the only one."

Correction: an earlier version of this article misidentified the reason that Olivia must stay with Ruby's family in On My Block.

This Is What It Feels Like When the Teenage Dream Looks Like You (16)

R. Eric Thomas

R. Eric Thomas is a columnist for, where he skewers politics, pop culture, celebrity shade, and schadenfreude. He is also the author of Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America, a memoir-in-essays.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Kareem Mueller DO

Last Updated: 07/10/2023

Views: 6142

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (66 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Kareem Mueller DO

Birthday: 1997-01-04

Address: Apt. 156 12935 Runolfsdottir Mission, Greenfort, MN 74384-6749

Phone: +16704982844747

Job: Corporate Administration Planner

Hobby: Mountain biking, Jewelry making, Stone skipping, Lacemaking, Knife making, Scrapbooking, Letterboxing

Introduction: My name is Kareem Mueller DO, I am a vivacious, super, thoughtful, excited, handsome, beautiful, combative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.