tv review

Ramy Isn’t Telling a Universal Story of the American Muslim Experience. That’s Why It’s So Good.

Photo: Barbara Nitke/Hulu

Some of the stories in Ramy seem like standard millennial-comedy fare: Ramy (Ramy Youssef) has parents who want him to settle down, and he’s wary of their values and the things they desire for him. He’s not sure what he wants to do with his life, and when the start-up company he works for implodes abruptly, Ramy is left adrift and rudderless. He goes to parties. He feels disconnected. He searches for meaning.

But in Ramy, the new Hulu comedy created by Youssef, Ari Katcher, and Ryan Welch, the sweeping generational arc of those plots is weighed against Ramy’s religion and culture. He’s Egyptian-American, he’s Muslim, and he’s lived through the last two decades of American culture shaped by not only the usual personal crises of adolescence but also the specifically disorienting alienation of being a Muslim teenager in post-9/11 New Jersey. Ramy’s first season follows all of those threads, interweaving Ramy’s generational identity with his identity as a Muslim, as an Egyptian, as a son, brother, friend, and young man. Those multiple viewpoints provide some of the show’s funniest material, as Ramy is fantastically adept at identifying the absurdities in Ramy’s many overlapping, often conflicting roles. But it also contributes to one of the show’s biggest strengths, which is its ability to capture the moments when Ramy is painfully blind to the people around him.

That eagerness to engage with life’s contradictions and complications feels reflective of the impossible position in which the show finds itself. On the one hand, Ramy and Ramy are representative of a group of people, aiming to tell a universal story about first-wave identity and life as a young Muslim in America. At the same time, it’s futile and infuriating to be held responsible for all of that, to be the one example standing in for an enormous, disparate community. It’s a burden Ramy shouldn’t have to carry. But if the show is going to get stuck carrying it anyway, then it’s hard to imagine it doing a better job of accepting that role while acknowledging its unfairness.

Part of what makes Ramy work so well is that it’s rooted in intensely personal experiences for Ramy. This is most apparent in the fourth episode, “Strawberries,” far and away the highlight of the season. Via flashbacks, “Strawberries” combines the intense alienation of being any adolescent with the more painfully pointed alienation of being a Muslim kid whose cultural differences are quickly becoming more visible to his friends, and then pushes both of those sensations through the world-changing flashpoint of 9/11. Somehow, “Strawberries” manages to suggest that there is no more traumatizing horror than being a young Muslim teen whose primary social anxieties are his friends calling him a terrorist and his friends mocking him for not knowing how to jerk off; it is the kind of emotional nightmare fuel that pulls from the many aspects of who Ramy is as a person, outlining the way his Muslimness makes him feel separate in the same way all adolescents can feel alone, while validating the truth and specificity of both of those experiences.

“Strawberries” is also representative of one of Ramy’s most important defining ideas: representation is good, but simple mimicry is not enough. It’s not enough to just put a Muslim man onscreen and show us his family. It’s not enough to simply tell the story of a young Egyptian kid during 9/11, or to tell us that Ramy feels alienated from his friends. To truly mean something to its viewers and have weight beyond just “Here is the image of a person you don’t usually see on TV,” those stories also have to be weird and insightful and fearless about genre and form.

In that way, Ramy bears some notable resemblances to Transparent, another half-hour comedy that often looks like a drama, and another show about people and families who were not often seen on TV before that series premiered. In its most transcendent moments, Transparent is unafraid of dream sequences and strange, unearthly stories that hit more at the gut level than at the level of plot. There is a dream sequence in “Strawberries” that I won’t spoil, but it reminded me of the best of Transparent, and it is probably not a coincidence that Ramy shares a showrunner with that series.

Ramy also dodges one of the trickiest potential pitfalls in semi-autobiographical work, and in work that takes one person as its defining protagonist. It’s more than willing to point out Ramy’s flaws, but even better, over its ten episodes it takes several opportunities to move away from Ramy’s perspective entirely so that it can focus instead on the other people in his world, most significantly his sister and his mother. Those outside viewpoints let Ramy explode out of the fertile but limited scope of Ramy’s own experiences, and they are particularly useful for identifying the privileges he experiences that his female family members do not.

These episodes succeed to varying degrees. The episode about Ramy’s sister Dena (played by May Calamawy) is underbaked. It is perceptive about the restrictions and injustices of Dena’s life, and Calamawy is very good, but by the end the story can’t seem to make the same sort of imaginative, insightful leap out of Dena’s entanglements as it can for Ramy. The episode about Ramy’s mother, Maysa, though, is remarkable. That’s due in part to the skill of Hiam Abbass, who absolutely flies away with every scene that she’s in. But it’s also because Maysa is granted the kind of rueful, intelligent, imagistic storytelling that’s afforded to Ramy, and that Dena doesn’t have a chance to access. Dena’s story simply stops, unable to reach an ending. Maysa’s story about her aimlessness now that her children are adults, and her sense of being disconnected from American life, isn’t any more conclusive. But its open-endedness feels like an eloquent, self-aware, irreducible shrug — that’s just how life goes. It, too, is reminiscent of Transparent’s best, most deliberately opaque moments.

The nuance and sweetness underlying Maysa’s story is not evident everywhere in the show. Ramy never quite seems to know what to do with Ramy’s friend Steve (Steve Way, one of Youssef’s real-life close friends), whose wry dialogue and ill-advised behavior make him immediately recognizable as everyone’s idiot friend who never thinks before getting into trouble. But that character’s flatness feels noticeable next to Ramy’s more nuanced internal life, and Steve has no opportunity for growth beyond being Ramy’s friend. But this, along with Ramy’s other occasional missteps, feel like minor issues amid the otherwise impressive success of this debut season. Ramy is a funny and sharp and specific comedy, but what makes it shine is the way it starts with a story about a young Muslim man, but then pushes beyond a simple depiction of his life. Ramy is about Muslim representation, yes — but it’s also something stranger and more ambiguous and more mannered, so much more than just a mirror held up to one man’s life.

Ramy Isn’t Telling a Universal Story. That’s Why It’s Great.