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“The problem is really that I just don’t know what kind of Muslim I am,” a young man tells a young woman, a fellow Muslim, near the conclusion of the first season “Ramy,” Hulu’s excellent and thoughtful new comedy which premieres in full on April 19. “There’s Friday prayers, and then there’s Friday night, and I’m at both.” It’s as close as “Ramy” comes to a mission statement, underlining the balance its protagonist struggles to maintain through the course of its ten uniformly strong episodes. And yet, as is the case with so much of this series, there’s more to it than that.
“Ramy,” created by comedian and actor Ramy Youssef and executive produced by Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”), and Bridget Bedard (“Transparent”), follows the titular character, a young, observant Muslim man, as he navigates work, family, sex, friendship, and his own relationship to religion. That alone is noteworthy. But more significant still is this: It does so without installing training wheels for its audience. There’s no opening reveal of Ramy’s religion, and there’s also precious little hand-holding—the series instead takes moments to briefly enlighten those who know little about Ramadan. It starts its conversation a few steps in, centering the narrative squarely within Ramy’s life. We’re not gazing in from the outside.
The life into which we step is sometimes complicated, sometimes simple. Ramy (Youssef) is a millennial Muslim, balancing two hales: his observant side—trips to the Mosque, prayer alerts on his phone, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, the list goes on—with the side that works at a startup, talks shit with his best friend (Steve Wray), parties and sleeps around. Never does that tension feel more alive than when he’s at home with his parents (Amr Waked and Hiam Abbass). Though strict, they’re sometimes less observant or traditional than their son, and the same is true of his sister Dena (May Calamawy), a graduate student indignant over the freedoms afforded to her brother by her overbearing parents, and of which she has no share.
Ramy connects a certain aimlessness in his life with his inability to balance those contradictory halves of himself. While this first season is largely episodic, his struggle to find balance seems to slowly push both halves further and further apart. This heightens the tension so gradually over the course of the first season that by the time Ramy starts to make some very questionable decisions, it feels as though you’re watching a car crash in slow motion. It’s character study as throughline, and it’s an incredibly effective choice here, giving this season an unforced cohesion, even when it looks just beyond its protagonist.
It’s fortunate, because as good as Youssef’s performance is, and as compelling as his fictional alter-ego’s journey may be, “Ramy” is actually at its best when it wanders away for a spell. Of the ten episodes that make up this season, the three best sit outside the realm of Ramy’s here and now. The first, “Strawberries,” stars the exceptional Elisha Henig (“The Sinner,” “American Vandal”) as a young Ramy trying to figure out how to masturbate just before a cataclysmic event dramatically changes his life. Written and directed by Youssef, it’s by far the most daring and inventively written episode of the series, a big swing that almost completely connects. With the possible exception of the unofficial two-part finale, it’s also the most visually evocative, making it a most impressive turn from a first-time director.
The other notable standalone episodes might, were they less successful, seem like defensive inclusions, but the top-to-bottom excellence of each makes any such interpretation impossible to maintain. Early in the season, Ramy blows up a date with a young, marriage-appropriate woman with whom he actually connects after he puts the brakes on a potential sexual encounter. She calls him out for hypocrisy, saying that he’ll gladly have sex with women who aren’t Muslim, but because she could be a potential wife and mother for him, she’s not granted any kind of agency, sexual or otherwise. She’s not wrong, and as a result, the series sees most women through that lens, too: they are mothers, potential mothers, or objects of sexual desire, with little to no overlap.
The difference between this series and the many others with the same gaze is that "Ramy'"s is a deliberate extension of the character’s flawed point-of-view. And that’s where the two aforementioned standalone episodes come in. The first, “Refugees,” centers on Dena and what happens in her life after a standing flirtation with a hot barista threatens to become something more; the second, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” concerns Dena and Ramy’s mother Maysa and her efforts to find some sort of connection or pleasure in a family and a world increasingly disinterested in her existence. Both are excellent. The former is both written and directed by women (Bedard and Cherien Dabis, who also directs the Youssef-penned Maysa episode), and it feels like it; as with the series as a whole, it seems to begin the conversation several steps in, assuming there’s no need to spell out why she’s treated differently than her brother, nor explain how or why that might have a significant impact on her own sense of self.
“Ramy” is a comedy, and it’s a good one, but its clear priority is to have the jokes emerge from the characters being so carefully drawn, and from the worldview so frankly explored. That means that sometimes punchlines will arrive at inconvenient times, just as they do in life. Ramy spends much of his time questioning, and those questions lead to both stumbles and discoveries; there are truths and jokes to be found in both. So is “Ramy” heavy? As is the case with many questions, there’s no simple answer. It is, and it isn’t. It changes as Ramy changes, and he changes not at all and quite a lot.
All ten episodes of season screened for review.
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