TV: Ramy (Seasons 1 & 2)

While it has received significant awards recognition, I haven’t heard nealy enough buzz about the Hulu Original series Ramy. That’s a crime, because it’s an exceptional show, funny, insightful, and strikingly different. The show follows the struggles of aimless twentysomething Ramy Hassan (Ramy Youssef, who also co-created the show and writes and directs many of its episodes) to chart a life path. Ramy lives with his parents and sister in New Jersey, and he’s caught between two worlds. On one side are the relaxed social norms of the country he lives in, with all its permissive western components. On the other are the religious faith and cultural traditions of his Egyptian-born parents Farouk (Amr Waked) and Maysa (Hiam Abbass), as well as the local Muslim community to which he belongs. Ramy is a genuinely good soul in many respects, and desperately wants to find meaning and purpose. But the peer pressures of American life and the strict traditions and tenets of Islam are constantly at odds, leaving Ramy—naïve, impressionable, and unselfaware—constantly at war with himself, unable to separate his self-interest from society’s external judgement.

The restless, inventive style of Ramy will be familiar to fans of Atlanta and Reservation Dogs. It’s a serious comedy about a culture within a culture, and how the norms and circumstances of that culture can inform—or sometimes deform—the daily struggles of the people within it. Youssef writes and performs in an honest, open-minded way as he explores this struggle, careful to be even-handed about Islam as his character strives to be a good Muslim despite the hindering drawbacks and contradictions of the faith. This isn’t to say it’s a critique of Islam, although there are elements of that; it’s more an examination of how complex cultural and religious mores can be, and how profoundly they can shape an individual’s life. Ramy sits at a convergence of interpretive perspectives, facing the constant judgment of his parents, absorbing the sketchy advice of his friends Mo (Mohammed Amer) and Ahmed (Dave Merheje), and withstanding the toxic sexism and anti-Semitism of his Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli). These interactions shape his day-to-day approach in hilariously awkward ways, constantly warping his perspective and leading him to make major mistakes, especially romantically.

Ramy launches confidently in season one, establishing its milieu in amusing but also touching ways, while also dropping memorable, powerful standalone episodes. I especially enjoyed “Refugees,” which focuses on the parallel struggle of Ramy’s sister Dena (May Calamawy), and “Strawberries,” which ventures back in time to explore the origins of Ramy’s longtime friendship with Steve (Steve Way), an uninhibited, foul-mouthed fellow with muscular dystrophy. The show improves significantly in an even more adventurous and impactful second season, when Ramy seeks further enlightenment with a Sufi sheikh, Ali Malik (Mahershala Ali)—a relationship that leads Ramy down a deeply weird, mistake-prone path. It also ramps the strategy of breaking from Ramy’s point of view more often to explore life through the lens of his family, which leads to a streak of terrific standalones like “3riana Grande” (which features Dena), “They” (Maysa), “Frank in the Future” (Farouk), and “Uncle Naseem” (Naseem). The result is a show very much in the FX style (Atlanta and Better Things especially come to mind): a strong thematic strategy mixed with a varied structural approach that makes it different, unpredictable, and wildly entertaining, all centering one of Hollywood’s most poorly represented cultural spaces. Really looking forward to seeing more of this one.

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