*Some On My Block and Family Matters spoilers below
Once upon a time, the biggest nerd on T.V. was none other than Steve Urkel.
The character took over the 90s sitcom Family Matters with his unabashed brilliance, his extreme clumsiness and his unweathered love for his next door neighbor Laura Winslow. The nerdy teen, played by Jaleel White, helped the show garner a massive following. Not to mention, Urkel became a franchise phenomenon, complete with his own toy doll and even a cereal brand. Finally, the nerds were getting their shine, and it was a major plus that he was Black.
However, since the 90s, various incarnations of the Black nerd and nerds of color have popped up and upon further reflection, Steve hasn’t aged as well from when he first hit the scene in 1989.
Netflix’s On My Block is the latest show to portray nerds of color in ways that are a lot more realistic and nuanced than the Urk-man. The show, which begins its second season on March 29, takes place in Freeridge, Los Angeles, a fictional equivalent to the South Central area of L.A. The series follows four friends as they endure the typical woes of being a teenager, while also navigating a neighborhood conflicted by gangs.
Cesar (Diego Tinoco) is the suave teen of the group who finds himself deciding between gang life and an academic future. Monse (Sierra Capri) is the tomboy-ish Afro-Latina who tries to keep everyone together, while also pursuing a romantic relationship with Cesar.
Then there’s Ruby (Jason Genao), whose charming way with words can get him out of the toughest situation (or screw them up). And finally, there’s Jamal (Brett Gray), who’s trying to avoid football at all costs and pursue an urban legend of big money buried in his neighborhood.
The show balances heavy topics of gun violence, absent parents, and teen romance with an intelligent humor that’s typical of nerd characters. However, whereas shows like Family Matters thrived off the damaging attributes of nerd-iness, On My Block opts for a more complex route.
For example, watching Family Matters as an adult, one might start to realize…
Steve was kind of trash.
Although he was brilliant, Urkel wreaked a lot of havoc in the Winslow’s life with little to no accountability. He destroyed property, he constantly intruded on family business, and he often sabotaged relationships the Winslows had with other people. In many instances, he even put their lives in danger, especially Carl, the father of the family.
For example, in one episode, Carl was gracious enough to teach Steve how to drive after much resistance and after he learned that his blood pressure was high. Of course, in the midst of their lesson, Steve doesn’t listen to Carl, and he ends up backing into Carl’s garage door, destroying loads of property and putting Carl’s life in danger.
Ultimately, the blame is put on Carl for not managing his anger and for not following his doctor’s orders. Little attention is shown to Steve’s recklessness or inability to listen. On top of this, there’s no reference to whether Steve financially reimburses the Winslows for the damage he causes. We just assume a middle class family can repair their garage, no sweat. All is well in the end, and Steve is still tolerated.
Now I know what you’re thinking…this might be a little too much digging for one episode of a sitcom. However, the formula is repeated constantly throughout the series to the point where a once enjoyable character can become a complete nuisance when watching as an adult.
On My Block creates the opposite effect. The nerd-ness is vast and usually doesn’t incite terror or undeserved sympathy. These teens are held accountable to each other. They protect each other when necessary and call each other out when someone messes up.
Cesar is arguably a scholastic nerd, yet he still gets caught up in the violence of gang life, something his three friends try to get him out of.
Monse is an awkward girl, who might have some tomboy ways, but she’s still able to explore her sexuality without any proverbial shame.
Ruby is a brilliant teen who still has family responsibilities, but makes time to pursue his love interest Olivia…and even his pursuit seems healthier than the ways Steve pursued Laura. While Steve smothers Laura with his presence and might try to sabotage her relationship with other guys, Ruby listens to Olivia and treads lightly if it’s conveyed that he’s getting too intense.
Jamal also portrays a more realistic journey of a nerd. While Steve was unapologetic about being an unconventional Black man, Jamal had to put on an athletic mask so he wouldn’t disappoint his parents. It was only by the end of a later episode that Jamal decided to be true to himself and tell his parents that he didn’t like football. Amazingly, they accepted it, letting other nerds out there know that outside pressures are real but in the end, staying true can have wonderful results.
In 2019, high waters and glasses no longer signal the makings of a nerd who should get our laughs or emotional investment. Instead, nerds of color can now be complex characters with real issues, societal pressures and jeans that sit comfortably below their navels.