WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Hulu
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ramy Hassan (stand-up Ramy Youssef) is a 20-something-year-old son of Egyptian immigrants, living in a nice North Jersey suburb (the town is not mentioned, but Youssef grew up in Rutherford). His mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass) and father Farouk (Amr Waked) are strictly observant, and insist that Ramy, and his sister, Dena (May Calamawy) also follow the strictures of Islam — no drinking, drugs or sex before marriage. Ramy’s pals Mo (Mohammed Amer) and Ahmed (Dave Merheje) complicate his life, and so does his blustery Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli) who works in the diamond district. Ramy badly wants to be a good Muslim in the eyes of God, but the world confounds his best efforts. At least he has a good friend at work — Steve (Steve Way), who has muscular dystrophy and puts Ramy’s problems in perspective.
MY SAY For some viewers, this superb new series may have a deal-breaker, and it breaks late in the first episode. Here’s the setup: Ramy is in a car with a young Muslim woman who wants to have sex, and not just any sex, but of the sort that involves asphyxiation. It looks as creepy and as horrifying as it sounds — and if it makes any difference, Ramy is creeped out and horrified too.
This scene seems extreme, even in the service of millennial comedy, but there it is anyway — one of those right hooks to the jaw of viewers when they least expect one, and just as they are settling into the comfortable rhythm of this show and the life that it depicts. It’d be easy to lay this off to showrunner misogyny, except that one of the writers and the showrunner is a woman (Bridget Bedard of “Transparent").
Instead, “Ramy” and namesake are exploring a big, interesting, tangled landscape, and strategically placed shock value is part of the package. “Ramy” is not just about the clash of cultures, but the clash of values and the clash of east and west, of Muslim and non-Muslim, of secular and nonsecular. Somewhere within those clashes are flashpoints — painful ones or awkward ones or moving ones or off-putting ones. To “Ramy’s” credit, none seems gratuitous or wasted. The laughs aren’t cheap or even particularly frequent but do force you into the often rewarding position of seeing them from someone else’s point of view — someone who happens to believe in God and who studies the Quran and is Egyptian-American.
An example: One of the best episodes of this first season is titled “Strawberries,” about Ramy as a young boy on Sept. 11, 2001. He’s in class, and has fleeting sexual feelings about a girl sitting in front of him — a girl whose mother dies that day. That night he has a nightmare about Osama bin Laden, who comes to the family’s house to explain to Ramy how Americans get strawberries in the winter (many are grown in Egypt, which sacrificed vitally important wheat fields for them.)
The episode shocks you into the perspective of a 12-year-old who lives in shadows of the Twin Towers and who was ostracized by his friends but who subsequently finds a lifelong one — Steve, confined to a wheelchair and consigned to a bitter fate.
If all this seems heavy and difficult, then so be it. “Ramy” is also moving and smart and genuine. The trade-off seems reasonable to me.
BOTTOM LINE One of the best new comedies of 2019 so far, and bonus points for also being one of the most interesting and different, too.