Hulu's 'Ramy' is a prime example of how a good dramedy can open up your world
The half-hour dramedy format, which began on premium cable and now populates the streaming networks, may well hold the solution to TV's age-old Beaver Cleaver diversity problem.
Don't see any shows with characters who look like you, talk like you, or share your cultural background? Well, stick around. That's getting harder and harder to claim, especially for people who thought they'd go their whole lives before getting to celebrate shows as fully realized and self-assured as HBO's "Insecure," Amazon Prime's "Transparent" or FX's "Atlanta," each of which managed to open up other perspectives while never forgetting that the first mission is to entertain.
Hulu's "Ramy" (which premiered Friday) is another strong yet artfully subtle example of what this emerging genre can accomplish, with moments that are as revealing and memorable as any show that ever set out to portray what it's like to be different in a culture that favors the familiar.
It's a 10-episode dramedy starring actor and comedian Ramy Youssef as a version of himself - Ramy Hassan, a 30-year-old man who lives at the New Jersey home of his Egyptian Palestinian immigrant parents (Amr Waked and Hiam Abbass) while making an earnest effort to reconcile his Muslim faith with the everyday temptations of secular life.
This is not part of some kind of concentrated affirmative-action effort - at least not entirely. Even the shows about white people are getting awfully specific these days when it comes to matters of identity and individuality: HBO's recently canceled "Crashing," for example, was indeed another dramedy about a male stand-up comedian, but he was a practicing Christian with values that contradicted his chosen milieu. Hulu's "Shrill" is about an overweight woman discovering the exhilarating power in self-worth. Netflix's "Special" is about a gay man with cerebral palsy and an active sex life.
None of these shows intend to say something collectively, but because they're all based on personal experiences of their creators and/or stars, they send out a clear message: This is who I am; this is where I come from. And rather than treat my world as exotic, we're going to treat it as normal.
In one obvious regard, "Ramy" is way overdue as a show that features Muslim characters - at least one that doesn't also feature a ticking bomb and a crate full of assault rifles. Instead, "Ramy" is about as chill as a show can get, a personal family drama that is rich with inside humor about prejudices and culture clashes - with an acknowledgment that stereotypes can be wielded offensively as well as defensively.
Aside from the fact that Youssef didn't make his character a struggling comedian (surely we've maxed out on shows about that), what's most striking is "Ramy's" central focus on Islam, as Ramy struggles to regularly attend prayers at the mosque (where an elder chastises him for not thoroughly washing between his toes), observe a Ramadan fast and steer clear of sex, which is his biggest temptation. Ramy's world teems with divergent behavior; when he goes on a chaperoned date with an eligible Muslim woman, even she winds up trying to lure him into a quick bout of rough sex.
Ramy's parents have drifted from practicing their faith, yet they keep their culture's social strictures very much intact. They pester Ramy to marry. They give him more personal freedom than his sister, Nena (May Calamawy), who must constantly report her plans and whereabouts. Ramy's Muslim buddies have married traditionally, yet leer like creeps at other women and sometimes drink alcohol. Ramy drifts along in a sort of permanent existential crisis, searching for that sweet spot between being devout and breaking free.
American attitudes and misunderstandings about Muslims act as a sort of constant background noise in the show, an irritating buzz rather than a daily threat. More intriguing is "Ramy's" focus on other forms of racism bandied about in the characters' conversations. When the start-up company he's working for goes under, Ramy must go to work for his jeweler uncle (Laith Nakli), whose ingrained anti-Semitism reveals an astonishing way of doing business with his Jewish competitors.
Ramy's soul-searching grows a little tiresome by the fourth episode, so it's a relief that the show's impressive group of writers spend quality time fleshing out other characters. Steve Way, a comedian with muscular dystrophy, plays Ramy's hilariously ill-tempered pal Steve, whose condition is such that Ramy must cut up Steve's food for him, or help him go to the bathroom, or drive him to a rendezvous with a girl he meets online.
Little of what we see here qualifies as comedy, aside from the tacit understanding between the producers and the viewers that life is just always a couple notches short of absurd. It's a similar mood to Donald Glover's "Atlanta" (minus that show's occasional surrealism), which means that "Ramy" is best when it is painfully real and even melancholy. In my favorite episode, Ramy's mother, Maysa, copes with boredom and loneliness (none of her friends will click "like" on her Facebook updates) by becoming a Lyft driver, picking up self-obsessed strangers who don't wish to try her homemade baklava.
Ramy, meanwhile, lets his spiritual crisis take him to Cairo to immerse himself in Muslim culture and visit relatives (his baggage laden with American treasures - Bengay topical cream and Apple iPads). This experience is also rife with contradictions, leaving him with more questions than answers. An ambiguous conclusion is good news for the viewer, because it feels like we just got to know Ramy and his world. As with any show that is absorbingly personal and refreshingly new, you can't help but want to see more, know more.