Critic’s Notebook: On Netflix, a Growing Wave of Shows for and About Teenagers


“Alexa & Katie” doesn’t mess around — it opens in a children’s hospital, from which Alexa is desperate to be discharged so she can start her freshman year.

Ms. Wordham and the showrunner, Matthew Carlson (“Malcolm in the Middle”), use this premise to give a twist to familiar story lines about wanting to fit in. Alexa wants to be normal, and she lashes out when she feels that she’s being pitied or given special treatment, leading to awkward situations with her overly protective mom (Tiffani Thiessen) and the math nerd she has a crush on (Jack Griffo). Her cancer — whose only visible consequence is hair loss, leading to a season-long focus on baldness and wigs — is like a mean parent, keeping her off the basketball team and forcing her to miss the school dance.

As a comedy, “Alexa & Katie” is about average, or a little below, if graded against the cable shows it resembles. But it’s a little more tough-minded than you might expect. The cancer theme leads to sentimentality, of course, but it’s also used to roughen Alexa’s edges: While she complains about being singled out, she also doesn’t mind taking advantage of her invalid status when it suits her.

With “On My Block,” the audience age range moves up a few years, and the TV comparisons shift to Freeform and MTV. The 10-episode series was created by Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft. Ms. Iungerich created “Awkward,” one of the best teenage comedies of recent years, for MTV.

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Gabriel Bateman, left, and Chris Diamantopoulos in “The Dangerous Book for Boys.”

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Giovanni Rufino/Amazon Prime Video

Ms. Iungerich grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and “Awkward” was set in that largely white and Asian-American environment. With “On My Block,” she’s stayed in Southern California but shifted the demographics, setting the show in a fictional section of Los Angeles called Freeridge, whose residents are predominantly Latino and African-American.

The show has drawn praise for promoting diversity, but its most distinctive feature is Ms. Iungerich’s sensibility, the same one she brought to “Awkward”: a kind of deadpan burlesque in which the jokes hit on the downbeat, and the young characters, no matter how bright, seem to exist in a constant state of irritable confusion.

“On My Block” is a coming-of-age story built around a love quadrangle — two girls (Sierra Capri and Ronni Hawk) and two boys (Diego Tinoco and Jason Genao) trying to sort out their mutual attractions and jealousies. A fifth friend played by Brett Gray, whose slightly abrasive style calls to mind Kevin Hart or (very distantly) a young Eddie Murphy, provides the pure comic relief in a subplot about an urban buried-treasure legend.

“On My Block” has the off-center charm and quirky comic rhythms Ms. Iungerich is known for, but it has a problem that’s tied to its setting. The stumbling block Ms. Iungerich has chosen for her young characters is the gang life: One of the boys is expected to join his older brother’s gang, which threatens to break up “the fam” (the group of friends) as well as the central romance.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that as a dramatic device (besides overuse), but it’s uncomfortably out of proportion in a half-hour teenage comedy. The shifts from football game high jinks or a character’s apple-bong-toking abuelita to the question of whether to shoot another teenager in the head are disconcerting, to say the least.

If neither cancer diagnoses nor street gangs are your idea of a children’s-comedy premise, you might shift your gaze from Netflix to Amazon, where “The Dangerous Book for Boys” has its premiere on Friday. In this fictionalization of the fanciful boy’s-life handbooks written by Conn and Hal Iggulden, the central conflict involves a family whose three young boys are recovering from the death of their gadget-inventing father. Warmhearted and perhaps imaginary adventures ensue, facilitated by the father’s identical twin (played by the always engaging Chris Diamantopoulos). If you like your nostalgia straight up, without “Stranger Things”-style monsters, it might be for you.

Correction: March 29, 2018

An earlier version of this review omitted the names of two creators of “On My Block.” The series was created by Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft, not just Ms. Iungerich.

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