On My Block is Netflix's next groundbreaking show because it's unlike anything else we've seen on television.
The show is about black and Latino kids in the tough neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, and though they have to deal with the ever-present threat of gang violence, they also have loving families and tight-knit communities and each other. To these kids, the universal teenage experiences of falling in love for the first time and getting in fights with your friends feel just as consequential as the life-threatening ones. A certain hood may have its own unique challenges, but high school is hard anywhere, and sometimes it's really, really fun.
The show feels like an authentic representation of what it's like to grow up in South Central (or Independence Heights in Houston or the South Bronx in New York City or any number of communities of color throughout the country). It can be heavy, but it can also be really, really funny. These kinds of stories are still rare on TV, but the people making the show hope that changes.
"I grew up not in South Central but in a place that is relatable to South Central more so than, like, Brentwood is," says Jersey City, New Jersey native Jason Genao, who plays the overdramatic, kindhearted aspiring ladies' man Ruben "Ruby" Martinez. "So I think if I wasn't in the show and just watching it I would have been so glad that someone who looked like me got to make a show. There'd be hope, like 'Oh my God, he's doing that? Maybe I could do that too.' It becomes more of a reality for people that possibilities are on the horizon."
"In real life we actually all are from different sides of the country," adds Sierra Capri, who's from Atlanta and plays Monse Finnie, a tomboy whose heart gets her in a lot of trouble. "So bringing that to the show as well as our own individual personalities, it brings a lot of diversity. I think a lot of people will appreciate that because there's nothing like that right now on Netflix or any media platform, for that matter."
She's right; On My Block feels different than just about anything else on TV. Netflix has carved out a niche as a place for young adult programming that respects teens' intelligence and maturity (and appeals to adults, too). On My Block slots in nicely with Netflix's other groundbreaking young adult programming like 13 Reasons Why, The End of the F---ing World and Everything Sucks! because it's not like any of them (and they are not like each other). For one, there are almost no white people on it. It centralizes black and Latino characters -- and points of view -- in a way that feels like a matter of course. And that extended behind the camera, too.
"We had Asian directors, Latino producers, Latino writers, African-American writers," says Diego Tinoco, who's from California and plays Cesar Diaz, a young man who is caught between his desire to have a normal high school life and the criminal birthright he inherited as the brother of fearsome gangbanger Oscar aka Spooky (Julio Mascias). "Everybody on screen is of color and everybody on the crew is of color."
He's exaggerating a bit -- co-creators Lauren Iungerich and Jeremy Haft are white; the third co-creator, Haft's writing partner Eddie Gonzalez, is Latino. But the show is uncommonly inclusive.
It's also uncommonly apolitical for a show whose very existence in 2018 feels politicized. It sublimates whatever agenda it may have by just, y'know, allowing its characters to be real people.
"It's not political, it's informative," says Capri. "And I think that's the main thing that people will take away from this, and that is needed right now with everything that's going on. People just need to be informed."
"This how people like us live," says Philadelphia native Brett Gray, who plays class clown Jamal Turner. "This is how our lives are."
Jamal spends much of the season on a treasure hunt to find cash that went missing after a heist at a roller rink in the disco era, so it's not always literally how their lives are. But it captures the spirit of growing up in a place like South Central, the struggle as well as the joy. No matter who you are, it makes you care about ordinary, imperfect black and Latino kids.
On My Block is now streaming on Netflix.
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NBC's Rise - which will take over This Is Us' time slot (Tuesdays, 9/8c) starting next week - is a likely contender, given that it comes from Jason Katims, the man behind beloved sobfest Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, which produced its share of sniff-inducing moments. But perhaps the bigger question is, why do people flock to shows that turn them into blubbering messes on their couch week in and week out? The reasons are more complicated than you might think.
One answer might seem fairly obvious: Viewers are drawn to television shows that make us emotionally invested in the characters, and most of the time we derive pleasure from that emotional investment. But especially on heavy dramas, things aren't always hunky dory for the characters, and viewers' emotional investment works both ways.
"In order to successfully be a tearjerker, a show has to be successful in making you care about the characters," says Dr. Jennifer Barnes, an assistant professor of psychology and professional writing at the University of Oklahoma who has researched the connections viewers feel with fictional characters. "We suffer when they suffer, but we also get great joy when they find joy. These shows, if they only delivered sadness all the time probably would not be as successful as they are. They're delivering a mix of emotions. And part of their ability to make us so sad is that they can also make us so happy."
Turns out writer and producer, Katims has been subconsciously working toward this balance the whole time: His goal isn't to make the audience weep every week, but to deepen the connections that they feel for those characters. And if that results in the occasional tear being shed, then so be it.
"Is it that people enjoy actually being moved to tears, or do they enjoy actually seeing a story that makes them feel and seeing characters that they feel like they could connect to?" Katims wonders. "That's what makes you emotional, I think, when you watch something, is you feel like you personally connect to it. That feels like the kind of stories I gravitate to, both as a viewer and a storyteller...Shows that sort of tap into your emotional life, there's something just naturally appealing to [them]. To me, it means that you feel connected to the experience and you're not watching it from a distance."
But isn't it kind of weird to feel such deep connections to people who aren't even real? Not really, according to Barnes. There's a psychological term for the connections we form with fictional characters and celebrities: parasocial relationships, meaning relationships that are in essence imaginary because they only go in one direction.
"You might feel like you know the Big Three on This Is Us really, really well, but they don't actually know you at all because they're fictional and they can't know you," Barnes explains. "Especially if you're watching the show week after week, these are people who can be a part of your life for an extended period of time, and you might actually feel like they're friends. So of course you're sad when something horrible happens to one of them - or, heaven forbid one of them dies and you lose a friend."
In fact, frequently, it can feel like we know fictional characters better than we do the people in real-world lives. This is mostly intentional on the part of writers, and the choices they make about what to show the audience about the characters they create.
"Part of the point of fiction is, it gives you this insight into other people's lives that you would never get in reality. In fiction, you get to see who people are when they turn away from everyone else in their world," Barnes notes. "Oftentimes, [a character] will have this hidden vulnerability, or they'll have a secret, or they'll not want other people to see them cry, for instance. No one in their world knows these secrets or gets to see them cry or gets to see them without any of their armor or masks on - but we as the viewers do, because we as the viewers are there with them when they are crying in the shower, or when they turn away from everyone else and we see something on their face that they didn't let anyone else see. Fiction is oftentimes built for us to get into the minds of other people, and then you grow to know them so well. Arguably, we know them... better than anyone except for our very closest friends in the real world."
Some studies have even shown that participants reported feeling more grief over a fictional character's death than the (hypothetical) death of a real-world acquaintance.
Merely the unconscious act of forming these parasocial relationships, regardless of the impacts they have on our emotional states, has psychological benefits for people. Research shows that having fictional "friends" can actually boost self-esteem in individuals who aren't getting what they need from real relationships. In another study, people also demonstrated better cognitive performance in a room where photos of their favorite celebrities and fictional characters were hung.
Our ability to form these connections in the first place is rooted in a philosophical concept known as alief. First proposed by Tamar Gendler, a professor of cognitive science and philosophy at Yale, the notion suggests that "aliefs" are a psychological phenomenon by which a person holds attitudes or feelings that often go against what they intellectually know to be true.
Barnes ties the idea to our reactions to fictional events thusly: "You might believe fictional characters are fictional, but you can alieve and kind of feel like they're real. If someone asked you, 'Is that person real?' You would say, 'No, I know they're not real. ... But I totally feel like they are.' And so, it could be that because of this alief, gut-level impulse we have that fictional characters are real - even though we know they're not - that our closeness is driving this [attachment]."
On an even deeper level, the pleasure derived from crying at a TV show is also related to humans' meta-emotions, or feelings about our feelings. Our feelings towards fictional characters are oftentimes much less complicated than our feelings towards people in our actual lives, in part because the direct impact fictional developments have on us is minimal.
"In the real world... sometimes you feel sad about feeling sad, or guilty about feeling sad. For example, you feel sad when your best friend gets engaged, and you feel guilty that you feel sad because you should be happy for that person," Barnes explains. "But, in fiction... we might actually appreciate that we're sad, because feeling it in this fictional context might make us sort of appreciate this full spectrum of human emotion that we're capable of. Even though we feel a very real sadness in response to tragedy, it's not a sadness that's going to have a lot of consequences for our real-world lives. In some ways, we're getting to feel this full spectrum of human emotion without having to actually bear the weight of the real-world tragedy that would normally accompany sitting around and sobbing. ... You can go about your day-to-day life without your life having changed in the way that a real-world tragedy would have changed it."
With This Is Us in particular, Barnes believes there's another element of human psychology behind the show's popularity - and it's one that doesn't involve getting a somewhat masochistic thrill out of weeping, but rather a sense of belonging. The same can be said for Rise, whose ratings are thus far untested, since it just premiered last week (and with a This Is Us lead-in to boot). Rise isn't a tearjerker on the same level as This Is Us, but as with other family dramas (and Katmis shows), it offers viewers a glimpse into a somewhat insular group(s) -- in this case, the drama department of a high school in a struggling small town, not to mention the families of many of the main characters.
"Humans have this universal need called the need to belong. We need connections with other people, but we also need to feel like we belong in some kind of group," Barnes says. "If you look at the title of This Is Us, there's an 'Us.' There's a group there to belong to. In this case, it's a family. I think the show does a really good job at inviting viewers in to being a part of this family, in part because you get to see their background. You get to see how these people became who they are today. You're with them for multiple generations, and there is this closeness that the different family members share. ... Although people are very attracted to This Is Us because it is such a tearjerker, I also think a large part of the pleasure is, they just get to be a part of that family and see those people overcome challenges and see them grow and rise and fall."
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If you were dreading a long drag-out of last week's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reveal that Deke (Jeff Ward) is actually the grandson of Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), tonight's episode was probably a pleasant surprise!
Deke spent most of the episode being a sidekick to Fitz, unwittingly engaging in a lot of "adorably annoying grandchild" behavior. He bemoaned Fitz's grumpy, old nature, called him boring, and even tried to entice him to play a game of catch after finding an old glove and ball. It was hilarious for us, as viewers who knew what the characters did not, to see this dynamic naturally unfold, but it still felt like the other shoe was waiting to drop. When would they get wise to Deke's real identity?
At the tail end of the episode apparently!
Thanks to another Fear Dimension anomaly, Deke hallucinated his mother showing up to urge him to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. behind and protect himself. In her words, "The steps you take don't need to be big, they just need to take you in the right direction." A mantra she seemingly said a lot back when she was alive.
He heard those words echoed back to him later in the episode, this time from Simmons, who was helping Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) with her recovery. It didn't take him long to connect the dots and realize those words of encouragement had been passed down from mother to daughter to grandson. It was actually pretty adorable watching him realize that FitzSimmons were actually his relatives.
As for whether he'll share that information, we can't say.
Deke is new to time travel, but it's hard to imagine that being aware he's spending a significant amount of time with his grandparents wouldn't massively change his behavior. Every action he takes to "change" the past -- the jury is still out on whether that's even possible -- could result in his mom not even being born. That's a heavy load to bear for any kid!
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Fridays at 9/8c on ABC.
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