by Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stones
Comedian Ramy Youssef dives deeper into the story of his flawed yet endearing Muslim-American hero
“Why are you so extreme with everything, man?” Ramy’s friend Ahmed asks him. “Everything with you, dude. You’re, like, the most emotional, extreme Muslim I’ve ever met.”
This is the important thing to understand about Ramy, the superb Hulu dramedy returning this week for its second season. It’s not just that the show is a television rarity in focusing on a Muslim American — played by comedian and series co-creator Ramy Youssef — but that even within his community, he’s an outlier. The assimilated, New Jersey-raised son of Egyptian immigrants, he wants very much to reconnect with his faith, if only he can stop watching porn and getting into various sexual misadventures long enough to do it. He is surrounded by friends and family, yet seems to fit in nowhere.
The best television finds a way to make the specific universal and the universal specific. There is no other show quite like Ramy, because there is no other character quite like Ramy. Even if you expand the search to other cultures, there are still precious few series that are this concerned with spirituality — much less ones that manage to be so respectful of the topic while mixing in this many jokes about masturbation. (After watching the Season Two premiere, you may need to avert your eyes for a while when you see wallpaper.) Yet there’s something so relatable about Ramy’s desperation to find meaning in his own aimless life.
“I feel like I have this hole inside of me that’s always been there,” he confesses at one point. “Just this emptiness. And I’m always trying to fill it with something. Like sex, and porn. And I feel like the more people I’m with, the more alone I feel.”
This admission is made to Season Two’s major new addition, Sheikh Ali, a Sufi leader who offers to guide the show’s troubled young hero. As played with understated grace by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, the sheikh is a figure of intense calm and relaxed charisma. A friend of Ramy’s explains, “The sheikh is radical, bro — like, cool radical, not radical radical.” Yet the actor and the Ramy writers find ways to let this font of wisdom be dryly hilarious, particularly as he learns just what a hot mess he’s accepted as his newest pupil. (Other characters are often surprised to learn that such a holy man has a sense of humor; at one point, he disarms a new friend by explaining that his last comment was, “A sheikh joke; like a dad joke, but for sheikhs.”)
As was the case in the outstanding first season, the new episodes toggle between Ramy’s misadventures on the road to enlightenment and poignant spotlights on other members of his family. In the process, Youssef and his collaborators deftly illustrate how people from the same background, raised in the same tradition, can wind up so very different from one another. Ramy’s mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), scolds his sister, Dena (May Calamawy), for not praying enough; when Dena points out that Maysa rarely prays herself, her mom replies, “God knows me. We have a thing.” Season One’s highlight was a story about Maysa battling her crippling loneliness by becoming a Lyft driver; the inevitable sequel offers proof that the socially inappropriate apple doesn’t fall far from the unintentionally insulting tree(*), while also illustrating how precarious it can feel to be a Muslim in America right now. Dena gets her own story, a horror tale about the perils of pride, and there are also detours about Ramy’s father, Farouk (Amr Waked), trying to help his son avoid his own mistakes, and about what lurks beneath the burly, macho facade of Ramy’s Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli).
(*) Describing some of her passengers on a given day, Maysa says, “They were singing loudly the songs by that woman Lizard, the one who’s happy because she’s fat!”
Ramy remains a series where the border between kitchen-sink realism and surreal farce can be indistinguishable. In one episode, Ramy attempts to practice what he preaches about being a better Muslim by befriending a homeless vet in need of a break; the man’s descriptions of his actions in the Middle East sound like something out of a horror movie. In another instance, Ramy and the sheikh’s daughter, Zainab (Maameyaa Boafo), solicit funds for the Sufi Center from an absurdly wealthy Arab businessman who boasts that he’s collected “lions, tigers, bears… white people.” Yet both stories feel like they belong in the same show. There are moments when the two extremes converge, like Ramy’s terrifyingly strange encounter with an armed and senile old man in a cramped bathroom. And the most ridiculous elements somehow always loop back around to the serious questions the show asks about faith and purpose. It’s a season in which someone says, “You’re not going to use my cum to wash your sins!” — and it is both hilarious and shockingly insightful. The show helps us understand its hero without ever absolving him for the many, many thoughtless mistakes he makes.
“I don’t know why I’m like this,” Ramy admits after a particularly egregious offense late in the season. To our benefit, Ramy straddles multiple worlds far more comfortably than its fascinating, bumbling, and endearing title character.
Hulu is releasing all of Ramy Season Two on May 29th. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.
Director of Photography: Claudio Rietti