'Ramy': TV Review | SXSW 2019

Joins 'Pen15' and 'Shrill' in a Hulu comedy hot streak.
4/19/2019

Ramy Youssef's new Hulu comedy takes an earnest, smart, often funny look at being a 20-something Muslim in New Jersey.

Before praising the Hulu comedy Ramy as the exceptional trailblazer in Muslim representation that it is, it's worth acknowledging how far short that sells Ramy Youssef's new series.

Depicting any sort of faith on TV is apparently disproportionately difficult. Jim Gaffigan may weave his Catholicism into any show he creates and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel may fetishize Jewishness in a way that sometimes delights and sometimes concerns me, but it isn't like Ramy is joining a landscape awash in depictions of some religions and not others. I could argue that there are more professed Muslims on TV than people of many other faiths simply because every serious-minded procedural seems to have one character who self-identifies as Muslim since writers think it generates conflict. So yes, the depth and diversity of perspectives on Muslim observance make Ramy a trailblazer, but it's already progressive enough as a show that is specifically and not just incidentally about religion. Oh and it's also able to be extremely funny, unexpectedly emotional and consistently eye-opening as something that's both operating within a familiar formula and utterly confident in its own voice.

The 10-episode first season of Ramy (I've seen eight episodes), which premiered at SXSW and will launch April 19 on Hulu, focuses on a character on a spiritual journey that's foregrounded above and beyond his professional or even personal path. Ramy (Youssef) is working at a failing cyber startup with his longtime friend Steve (Steve Way), who has muscular dystrophy and no particular filters when it comes to what he says or asks his buddy to do. Ramy is a New Jersey-based first-generation son of Egyptian immigrants struggling to reconcile the parts of his religion he's dedicated to — regular prayer, observance of Ramadan, eschewing of drugs and alcohol — with the pieces he's less comfortable with, which mostly relate to sex and his hesitance to settle down with a woman his more traditional parents (Hiam Abbass and Amr Waked) would approve of.

The typical setup here would be the one that Aziz Ansari used in Master of None, namely the generational clash between secular children and devout elders. That's not what Ramy is doing. The show's main character doesn't want to distance himself from his religion and roots. He's a believer and he wants to be a good person as defined by his faith. The standards he struggles to meet are as much his own as those laid down by his parents, and they come into play whether he's interacting with his sister Dena (May Calamawy), his already married Muslim friends Mo (Mohammed Amer) and Ahmed (Dave Merheje), the live-in-the-moment Steve or a more overbearing figure like his diamond-dealing Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli).

The treatment of Naseem, a virulent anti-Semite and patriarchal misogynist and yet a key piece of Ramy's family, points to the most complicated thing that the show is attempting. There's a grappling with the distance between ideology and intention, between paper-thin depictions of intolerance and imperfections that can be all-encompassing and yet human. The aged relative who occasionally says hilariously inappropriate things without ramifications is a beloved sitcom trope and I appreciated how Ramy doesn't treat Naseem, or other more fundamentalist Muslim characters, as dismissible jokes. The show wants you to feel uncomfortable at times and the challenge of answering a "What are they trying to say about this character?" question is that Ramy is rarely trying to say just one thing.

Creators Youssef, Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, with Bridget Bedard as showrunner and Jerrod Carmichael among the high-profile executive producers, deliver the latest comedy to build off the tone and structure-challenging template set by FX's Louie. If the first few episodes of Ramy are semi-traditional in how they build plot around Ramy, a basic religious or life quandary and the various supporting characters assisting or muddling his process, that's just how the show brings you into its world.

As Ramy progresses, it becomes one of those shows in the Master of None/Atlanta category in which you don't necessarily know what the perspective or storytelling approach will be from episode to episode. You can get a fairly straightforward and amusing half-hour about the inconveniences of Ramadan, but then there's a beautiful episode written by Youssef and directed by Cherien Dabis that focuses on Ramy's mother, her background and the extremes to which she takes her day-to-day loneliness. There's an excruciating (in a funny way) episode that's built around Ramy's sister, giving Calamawy a chance to shine, as she copes with double standards faced by young women in a family like this. Best of all is the flashback episode, written and, in an impressive behind-the-camera debut, directed by Youssef, that blends nostalgia and nightmare for a unique look at 9/11. Given Youssef's relative inexperience, the confidence and generous empathy exhibited across the first season is astounding even in the episodes that are a bit less fully realized.

As a co-creator, Youssef knows exactly how much to ask of himself as an actor and his performance is likable, generous and present, not quite the straight man, but happy to settle back and let his co-stars get the big reactions, whether it's laughter for Merheje and Amer or discomfort from Nakli. There's a surprising range of emotions generated in the scenes with Way, which call to mind FX's underrated Legit and let Way have some of the season's best punchlines without leaning exclusively on any one aspect of Steve's condition or character. There's a very nicely played partnership between Waked and Abbass, a frequently underutilized actress getting perhaps her best small- screen showcase here. The eclectic assortment of guest stars include memorable appearances from Anna Konkle, Michael Chernus, Jake Lacy, Joanna Adler, Poorna Jagannathan and Elisha Henig as Young Ramy in the flashback episode.

Rectify has been off the air for more than two years, but I'm still annoyed that religious groups didn't champion the spectacular Sundance TV drama. You can't say, "Why does TV ignore religious people?" and then ignore a show that offered as sincere and open and inquisitive a look at Christianity as anything the medium has ever explored. It was pragmatic and uncertain about faith in a way that should have made it completely relatable. Without being on that same qualitative level immediately, Ramy feels like it has comparable aspirations, mining a vein of universality from something that's extremely specific. Having enjoyed this fledgling season, I can't wait to see what Youssef and the Ramy team are able to do going forward. Between Ramy, Shrill and Pen15, the Hulu comedy brand has had a heck of a spring.

Cast: Ramy Youssef, Mohammed Amer, Hiam Abbass, Amr Waked, May Calamawy, David Merheje, Laith Nakli and Steve Way

Creators: Ramy Youssef, Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch

Showrunner: Bridget Bedard

Premiered Friday, April 19, on Hulu.