Meet Ramy Hassan. He’s 27 years old and lives in Rutherford, New Jersey, with his parents and his younger sister; he was going to get a place of his own, but then the start-up he worked at went belly-up. Now he schleps for his uncle in New York’s diamond district because dude, you gotta do something. His standard getup is a flannel shirt, old-school sneakers and a backwards baseball cap — think “Bro Casual.” Occasionally, he’ll go on a date, but his social life is primarily hookups and longing looks and missed connections. Mostly, he pals around with his two buddies, who fall somewhere between “lovable” and “knucklehead,” and another buddy of his who has muscular dystrophy. You’ve met Ramy before. Trust us. Maybe you are this guy.
Also: He’s an Arab-American, the son of a Palestinian mom (Succession‘s Hiam Abbass) and an Egyptian dad (Amr Waked). Plus he’s a practicing Muslim. This, as you might imagine, complicates things in terms of moving through a world that, well … have you seen Our Racist President’s tweets lately? But constant suspicion and paranoia are the least of his problems. Seriously, his folks are busting his balls. His sister (May Calamawy) thinks he gets away with murder compared to her because he’s a man, and she’s not wrong. His buddies (played by Mohammed Amer, Dave Merheje and Steve Way) want him to lighten the fuck up already, yo. And he’s really, really trying to figure out how to balance living a modern life and a devout life — to exist in the inter-zone between, as he eloquently puts it, “Friday prayers and Friday night.”
That’s the set-up of Ramy, Hulu’s 10-episode series co-created by writer-director-star Ramy Youssef and the latest in the ever-growing genre you might categorize as “Comedian’s Semiautobiographical Half-Hour Cringe-Dramedy.” The description, however, doesn’t quite do this new gem justice. For one thing, Youssef may be an accomplished stand-up comic (jokes from his act pop up in exchanges throughout the show), but his fictional counterpart isn’t a performer — there are no cutaways to late-night sets at the Comedy Cellar, no podcast-recording interludes, no celebrity cooking-show host gigs or bad days on sci-fi movie productions. He’s just a confused everydude stuck between two cultures, both of which have informed who he is and who he’s aspiring to be. The “two cultures” bit, however, is key. It’s a show about being a Muslim-American in which both of those words are given equal weight. And that makes all the difference.
Put it this way: When was the last time you watched a series whose main character sprints to a mosque and searches for a place to wash up before worship? (One-dimensional terrorist boogeymen in political thrillers don’t count. Those are caricatures, not characters.) Or that shows a group of men praying on rugs outside a diner before sunrise like it’s no big thing? Or has its sexually frustrated hero stop in the middle of a hot-and-heavy encounter because he’s minutes away from Ramadan starting? Or, for that matter, gives a large ensemble cast, almost all of whom are of Middle Eastern descent, the chance to act like normal everyday folks instead of exotic creatures — the same goofy best friends and happy, petty, angry, dysfunctional, loving family-next-door we’ve seen a million times, but who never drop Arabic slang or wield the term “habibi” as both a pet name and an infantilizing argument-stopper? Exactly.
Ramy leans hard into the aspects that separate the Hassans from the Huxtables and the Bunkers and the Keatons and the Alvarezes, with Youssef, his costars and his collaborators emphasizing the unique quirks that come with their particular firsthand culture-clash/combo experience. But the notion is not used as a novelty so much as a normalization, an anti-“othering” of something that’s been politicized and demonized — it’s hard to think of a better recent TV show that’s exemplified the notion that the more personal you get, the more universal things become. The friction produces relatability but also significant sparks. So maybe you’ve had a first date that started with “let’s take it slow” and ended in someone asking you to choke them while they got off, but it might not have come with a whole set of ideals that constrict Muslim women. Or maybe you have a racist, anti-Semitic uncle (Laith Nakli) that’s straight out of the Norman Lear devil’s-advocacy playbook, but he might not also be someone who’s figured out how to work peacefully among Orthodox Jews — ending with a scene that carries an extraordinary metaphorical weight.
Had this only succeeded in bringing an ignored perspective into a mainstream streaming-service show, Ramy would be still be one hell of an accomplishment. It’s a lot more than a mere triumph of representation, however; you’re so in awe of how Youssef has given the world the Great Muslim-American TV Show that you might miss the fact that it’s a great TV show, full stop. Every supporting performance, from Ramy’s trio of pals — big up to the disabled actor Way, who isn’t afraid to make the wheelchair-bound friend a complete asshole (“I can’t force myself on anyone,” he says before a dodgy date. “I’m #MeToo-proof”) — to his family members and romantic interests is top-notch. Every single episode contains multitudes, especially the third one, “A Black Spot on the Heart,” directed by Christopher Storer and beautifully written by Hala filmmaker Minhal Baig. Both Calamawy and the mighty Abbass get stand-alone showcases, which tackle the fetishization of Arabic women, gender-related hypocrisy and the loneliness of the long-distance Lyft driver. And we haven’t even got to the 9/11 flashback yet.
That would be “Strawberries,” the series’ fourth episode, which takes us back to Ramy’s childhood. The preteen version of our hero (Elisha Henig) is in a chat room, eavesdropping on a discussion about masturbation. The next day at school, Ramy decides to give it a try in the bathroom; when he’s interrupted by the sound of a coach crying, he returns to his classroom to discover that the Twin Towers have been hit. It ends with a bewildered, horny Ramy having a “discussion” with Osama bin Laden in his living room, talking about the food of the episode title. It’s as perfect a half-hour of TV as you’re likely to see this year, and probably the only one to feature the line, “Jerk off on this leaf to show us you’re not a terrorist.” Everything from the American flag hastily hoisted in the Hassans’ front yard to his friends’ abrupt about-face after the fact smacks of firsthand testimony. And if some of the show’s later narrative turns don’t quite hit as hard, like Ramy’s return to Egypt to reconnect with his roots, this installment alone proves that Youssef has hit upon something that’s deeper than an act of translation. He’s made a profound statement about the second-generation blues without diluting it or compromising it. It’s funny. It’s moving. It’s a flat-out triumph.
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