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Until the launch of The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu was easily the least important of the big three streaming services. Now, having conquered the world of drama, Hulu is making a serious play for streaming comedy supremacy this spring. Already garnering rave reviews with Shrill and Pen15, the streaming service's latest foray into perspective-based comedy is the smart, sly, and genuinely interesting Ramy.
Like Shrill and Pen15, the series has a very specific frame of reference: life in America as a quasi-observant Muslim millennial man. So, what's Ramy about? Well, it loosely follows Ramy (played by comedian Ramy Youssef) as he navigates life as an underemployed slacker, living at home with his parents (and sister), trying to navigate the ins and outs of his Muslim faith (as he picks and chooses just which tenets to follow), attempting to find a girl to date (and struggling to decide if he wants a Muslim woman or would be ok dating a woman from a different faith background), and as he reconciles just what it means to be a first generation American.
(Photo by: Barbara Nitke/Hulu)
The initial few episodes deal with the more typical half-hour comedy elements (Ramy dates different girls, loses his job, deals with his misogynistic uncle), and its a wholly enjoyable series to watch. Then comes the show's turning point, its fourth episode entitled "Strawberries." A flashback piece (which was written and directed by Youssef), the episode initially seems a bit like an episode of Pen15, as a twelve-year-old Ramy (played by the excellent Elisha Henig, most recently seen in season two of The Sinner) tries to figure out just how to jerk off. But it takes a sharp turn midway through the episode, as it uses a major moment in recent US history as an allegory for life in the perils of middle school, where anything that makes you different can be cause for getting spurned by those you thought were your friends. From that episode on, the rest of the season feels different, more unique, and far more contemplative than the more commonplace episodes that came before it.
While Ramy is certainly its own show, with its own sensibility, and its own characters, the more I watched, the more I found myself comparing the series to Master of None and Atlanta. None of the shows initial ten episodes (I've seen all ten) is as high concept as some of Atlanta's best episodes, and while the series doesn't really expand its focus outside of the insular Muslim community in which our characters live, it does take the time to give several of the supporting characters their own spotlight, and it takes the time to ask complex and difficult questions of its protagonist and of its audience, much like Master of None would.
(Photo by: Barbara Nitke/Hulu)
Getting a chance to see just how hard it is for Ramy's mother (played by Hiam Abbass, who was most recently on HBO's brilliant Succession) to spend her days (and often, her evenings) on her own, or how hard it is for Ramy's sister Dena to deal with the gendered double standard she faces within her own family (which gives May Calamawy a chance to shine) elevates the series. By understanding how those in Ramy's immediate orbit deal with some of the same issues he struggles with expands the show's worldview without needing to pull in outside characters. It's a smart technique, and it pays dividends by the end of the season, when Ramy attempts to immerse himself more fully in his family history by heading to Egypt to visit those who still remain.
There aren't many shows currently on the air that give more than lip service to their Muslim characters (when the show actually has any), and Ramy manages to teach those of us who might not be as familiar with life in a Muslim family just what that entails (or at least what that reality is from the point of view of the Hassan family). But that's not its goal. This is a show, much like Pen15 and Shrill, that is here to tell this story, about this person, at this set time. And it does an excellent job doing so. Hulu might have started as the kid brother to Netflix, but it's rapidly growing up and churning out excellent shows. Ramy is another gem.
The ten-episode first season of Ramy drops on Hulu on April 19.