Derek Lawrence
March 14, 2018 AT 11:00 AM EDT

With her new coming-of-age series On My Block, showrunner and co-creator Lauren Iungerich seeks to capture the heart of South Los Angeles, where violence and gang life are the norm.

The Netflix show follows longtime best friends Monse (Sierra Capri), Cesar (Diego Tinoco), Jamal (Brett Gray), and Ruby (Jason Genao) as they prepare to enter high school and find their relationships challenged by gossip, secrets, and the realities of life in their neighborhood.

“This has been the most transformative thing I’ve ever worked on in my career,” says Iungerich, who previously created the MTV comedy Awkward. She gets emotional just talking about her passion for this new project and those involved: “I just really want people to watch it because I love these kids.”

Ahead of On My Block‘s premiere, Iungerich spoke to EW about wanting to see a YA show “where the heroes weren’t white,” finding authentic voices to tell these stories, and making sure to keep things light.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve had tremendous success with a high school show, but this is obviously a very different setting than Awkward. What was it about this area and environment that appealed to you and you thought would make for an entertaining show?
LAUREN IUNGERICH: I was at a sort of dark place in my life, and I really wanted to get back to this teen world that speaks to me. It’s where I think my strength lies, this young voice. I was just thinking about how the majority of inspirational and fun YA shows are all told through a white prism, and I just wanted to see a show where the heroes weren’t white. And I knew that I couldn’t write that alone, I needed collaborators to help do that, and there was something exciting about that possibility.

For me, Awkward was this very personal endeavor, and I wanted to do something where I was able to not only transform my own experience, but be able to do it with a partner, which is what I found in Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft. Eddie was born in Compton and grew up in Lynwood, and when I brought this to him and Jeremy, it was like immediate synergy. We were just talking about for him, growing up in Lynwood, it’s a rough neighborhood, but the way he looked at it it was this amazing prism of like a John Hughes film; he loved his childhood. So it was just a really exciting time for me to come back to do something in television. I had been working on a bunch of pilots and doing other things and kind of in a space where I just didn’t feel like I was doing anything that was worthwhile on an emotional level, until I sort of found this way into a show that I could do with people that I just think are incredible.

What was the tonal balancing act like? Because you have these serious circumstances, like the pull of gang life, while often keeping things light with more fun and goofy material.
I feel like that balance and tone is very similar to Awkward. There’s some really emotional stuff, but it’s also very reflective of what this world is. For me and our entire team of writers, who were all authentic voices and either black or Latino, it was about doing justice and looking through it of the prism of … this show needed to reflect what the actual world looks and feels like. It’s not one thing, it’s all things. So that’s what we wanted it to feel like, to have authenticity drive the show. And I hope we did it justice.

John O Flexor/Netflix; Inset: Michael Tran/FilmMagic

That’s a great point, because if you watch a show that’s super-dark and doesn’t have any comedy, then it almost takes you out of it, since that’s not what real life is like.
The best comedy is driven from tragedy, right? So for us, this world is not one or the other. One of the things that was really imperative to my team and I going into it was to not just have authentic voices, but go even deeper and have young authentic voices. We had three young story consultants who were in our room. Two of them are slam poets and one is a young filmmaker. They’re from this world. They were voices in our room, helping us really drive authentic storytelling. And to me, having those young, amazing voices in the room, it was just transformative. I was learning so much and felt so lucky that I got to have this experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise, had I not had those 20-year-old kids in the room. We had to go find those storytellers who this opportunity would be a chance to also give them a real shot at what it looks like to work in television. It was just incredible. I feel like my whole world has changed in terms of how I see my position as a showrunner moving forward. I think our business is one where we talk a lot about diversity, we pay a lot of lip service to it, but this business as a whole doesn’t set up opportunities to really teach young people who don’t have the same opportunities of kids that come out of traditional colleges.

The show focuses on this core group of four best friends; how would you describe their dynamic?
They’ve all seen each other as friends and as a collection of individuals that make a group, and they are now really starting to identify on their own as separate individuals. And so we’re on that precipice with them as they’re taking on the challenges of having new identities separate from each other, but yet they still want to be together. I think that’s really what happens when you go to high school: You start to carve out what your place in the world is going to be. And sometimes that’s in conflict with where your friends are at, and sometimes it’s in concert with them, but it’s your friends who help you realize the best version of yourself and at the same time allow you to spread out from the group. It’s sort of like you need your friends, but you also need to grow away from your friends a little bit. It’s both. We need our friends, but we also need to be who we are.

The second episode brings the addition of another female character. Was that always part of the plan, or did you feel after episode 1 that you needed to mix it up?
It was always the plan to have that character in the show. Specifically for Monse, we thought it was really important to bring in, “What is it like for the girl who’s never had a girlfriend? How does that dynamic shift? Does she become a threat?” And for us, it was like, “No, she isn’t a threat.” This is a girl who loves having this new girlfriend. I’m like a girl who loves other girls, so I didn’t want it to feel like they are in conflict with each other, and they never really are.

What can you tease about the first season?
You should expect the unexpected. For us, we tried to take the tropes and spin them, and really see our kids being the heroes of their own stories. No one is saving them but themselves.

Season 1 of On My Block begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

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