'Ramy' Season 2: TV Review

An ambitious but polarizing sophomore effort.

Mahershala Ali joins the second season of Hulu's Golden Globe-winning series about a confused millennial Muslim American.

The first season of Hulu's Ramy, comedian Ramy Youssef's semi-autobiographical dramedy about millennial Muslim plights and second-generation Arab Americanness, was a gift to TV critics. Here was a fresh, thoughtful and unerringly funny series that was under the radar but easily accessible to be recommended at every opportunity to friends and strangers alike. Set in a Muslim-heavy New Jersey community, it's the kind of show that pushes representation palpably forward — especially in its 30-ish protagonist's questioning of his own internalized Islamophobia — while bolstering the notion that greater cultural specificity paves the way to wider emotional resonance.

For Ramy's follow-up season, Youssef largely trades in the intimate appeal of the debut season's observations of daily life and Egyptian-American identity for higher stakes and a sharp antiheroic pivot. The ambition is admirable, but the results are bound to be polarizing. For my tastes, these 10 episodes are nowhere near as bracing or hilarious as last year's, while exposing the structural limitations of the series' creative team. But it's also hard to fault a bold showrunner like Youssef for taking as many big swings as he does here.

Season one ended with two of the best episodes in all of 2019, in which Ramy (Youssef), who has grown up romanticizing his parents' homeland, travels to Egypt to reconnect with his extended family and with God. His coke-snorting cousin and Trump-praising uncle quickly disabuse him of the idea that he'll effortlessly find some purer, more spiritually elevated version of Egyptian culture in Cairo, but Ramy does experience a religious reawakening at a Sufi mosque… right before making out with his other cousin (Rosaline Elbay).

The new season builds promisingly on those two storylines. Ramy abandons his family's socially conservative mosque and joins a Sufi house of worship, led by Sheikh Ali (Mahershala Ali). Treated indulgently but interchangeably at his old mosque, Ramy has to prove himself worthy of the Sheikh's tutelage at this new institution, which means he has to actually work at the existential morass that's plagued him since the pilot: not letting his self-absorption and sanctimony get in the way of his devotion. The show demonstrates its essentialness with this thematic throughline: It's hard to think of another pop-cultural work that takes so seriously the difficult coexistence of religious dedication and youthful fecklessness, let alone from a Muslim-American point of view.

More serialized than the first season, Ramy's sophomore year finds its title character pleading good intentions as his small mistakes snowball into bigger and bigger messes. His eagerness to help out a homeless vet (Jared Abrahamson), in part to tell himself that he's a better Muslim than his friends (the always welcome Mohammed Amer and Dave Merheje), quickly leads to lying to the Sheikh.

It's entirely believable that someone as spiritually stuck (and chronically spoiled) as Ramy would merely try to evade responsibility as his world collapses around him, but it's also frustrating to watch two consecutive seasons of such a passive protagonist, especially one who's hampered further by Youssef's limited number of expressions.

The first two episodes are also short on laughs, though by the third installment, we're back to Ramy's comic deftness, particularly with dark humor, as we get jokes amid hospital visits, tent cities, even war crimes. Still, it's not until the final couple of installments that the season-long storylines pay off and the supporting characters get to have substantially new facets revealed to the audience.

Ramy's first season had two other standout episodes — one centered on his younger sister (May Calamawy), the other on his mother (Hiam Abbass), both stifled by gendered expectations in their own ways. These characters get their own installments this season, too, but their half-hours in the spotlight this time around are retreads that barely develop the women any further.

Ramy's main love interest this season, played by MaameYaa Boafo, is also disappointingly underwritten, adding to a sense of disinterest in the show's female characters in a betrayal of the first season's empathetic instincts. Similarly underexplored is the tension between Arab and black Muslims in America, which is dramatized but quickly resolved when the Sheikh pays Ramy's parents a visit at their home.

Two other episodes, exploring the hidden struggles of Ramy's father (Amr Waked) and childhood friend Stevie (Stephen Way), aren't much better in deepening our understanding of those characters. The only rival to season one's detour chapters is the penultimate installment, directed by Desiree Akhavan, about Ramy's boorish Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli), whose outspoken misogyny and anti-Semitism find a match in his own self-loathing. Ramy declares early in the season that the more he's surrounded by people, the lonelier he feels. But he can't begin to fathom how much truer that sentiment is for the uncle that even Ramy can only stand to be around in fits and starts.

It's difficult to make a show about a protagonist who's as lazily acquiescent as Ramy, especially when supporting characters are seldom given the vivivdness to shine on their own. And yet it's impossible not to be moved by season two's guiding observation: You don't have to do very much to be a bad person. In fact, all you have to do is nothing at all. At a certain point, Ramy's self-justifying complacency metastasizes from a character flaw to a pathological condition, maybe even a life-destroying one. His descent is frustrating and compelling in equal measure, but I also can't wait to see how he claws himself out of it.

Cast: Ramy Youssef, Mohammed Amer, Hiam Abbass, Dave Merheje, Amr Waked, May Calamawy, Laith Nakli
Creators: Ramy Yousseff, Ari Katcher, Ryan Welch
Showrunner: Ramy Yousseff
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)