TV Review: "Ramy" Season 1
Not long after I finished watching season one of “Ramy,” I went back and watched the first episode again. Granted, I watched the first season very slowly — a few episodes here, a few there since it came out in April — but I felt like I needed a reminder of where we started.
It begins with Ramy’s mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), dropping him off at the mosque. Maysa nags him about finding a partner, maybe even at the mosque that very day.
“The mosque is for praying; it’s not for picking people up,” Ramy complains.
His mother pushes, and Ramy flusters. “Just because I’m not with someone doesn’t mean I’m going to be alone forever. Okay? I’m just… figuring it out.”
When Ramy goes into the mosque, he replaces another man’s shoes with his own, selfishly putting his stark white Jordans in a cubby and the others in a pile on the floor. He sees how many men are waiting to get to the sink and instead goes downstairs to bypass the line. That’s where an old Hajj (someone who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca) finds Ramy patting water on his socks instead of washing his feet.
They get into an argument, the older man saying that it’s important for Ramy to wash between his toes. “I think God knows what’s in my heart, I don’t think I have to…” Ramy trails off before the man takes his foot and begins doing it for him.
The first three and a half minutes establish the state of mind Ramy will be in for the entirety of the 10-episode season — constant contradiction.
This series — one of the latest in a trend of “comedian’s semiautobiographical half-hour cringe-dramedy” series, as dubbed by David Fear in Rolling Stone — shines because of that very complicated, very contradictory point-of-view.
Stand-up comedian Ramy Youssef plays a fictionalized version of himself — a first-generation Egyptian-American Muslim named Ramy Hassan trying to figure out his place in modern New Jersey. And that doesn’t come easy.
“You’re Muslim, I thought, like in the way I’m Jewish, like it’s a cultural thing. I didn’t know that you were a Muslim, Muslim,” says a hook-up about Ramy’s religion.
Ramy’s a 20-something who wants to party, and a Muslim who regularly goes to the mosque to pray. He has sex, but he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He goes out with girls, but never any Muslim girls. He wants independence, but can’t hold down a decent job.
The 10-episode season covers massive ground with subtle storytelling; it focuses on the specific in order to attain universality. There are storylines about dating, religion, sex, and the clashing of cultures in daily life. There is an episode devoted to Ramy’s mother, and another to Ramy’s sister Dena (May Calamawy), both of which feel fresh and important in this day and age. There’s even an episode that somehow combines masturbation, Osama bin Laden, and strawberries. They’re all smart, well written, and incredibly acted.
Ramy’s episodic nature reminded me of Master of None, in a good way. By devoting entire episodes to minor characters, spending an episode in flashback, and exploring the stories unique to its world, the show comes into its own.
But because it shifts so much (especially in the back half of the season) the show never seems to settle on a specific structure or storyline. The tone is refined over the course of the season, but it’s bumpy and uneven, bouncing around a bit during those episodes when Ramy himself becomes a minor character. I have a feeling the tone will be much more solidified — much smoother — in season two.
One of the other casualties of the rough string of episodes is the character Ramy himself, whose personality, very gradually, looses the sharp edges displayed in the pilot. Ramy’s “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,” Allison Shoemaker writes for Roger Ebert.
Actors — comedians in particular — playing fictionalized versions of themselves on the silver screen is not anything new, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult for the viewer.
Seeing Ramy Youssef play Ramy Hassan creates the same problem audiences have had to deal with with Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, Kumail Nanjiani, and even Aziz Ansari (though his character in “Master of None” did have a different name, Dev was so like Ansari’s stage persona it was hard to tell the difference). When the creator/real person shares a name with their main character, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. The on-screen character becomes linked with the public persona, and it becomes the audience member’s responsibility to do adequate research and reading if you want to discover the difference.
Sometimes it’s obvious (Mindy Kaling’s namesake in “The Mindy Project” is an exaggerated critique character); sometimes it’s not (The line between the Kumail Nanjiani of the real world and the Kumail Nanjiani of “The Big Sick” is so thin it’s almost invisible).
That’s why, admittedly, I wanted to find the distinction between Ramy the man and Ramy the character. Because by the time we got to the tenth episode, I was cringing more often than I was laughing. Ramy the character’s tone-deafness bothered me in a way I’m not used to feeling because of a character on TV.
So I did a bit of research, including interviews with and features about Ramy Youssef, and other reviews of the series.
“It’s not a first generation story where you’re watching a kid try to separate themselves from their culture and their parents and erase it. You’re actually watching someone who has a lot of respect for the faith and the tradition, and isn’t trying to change or manipulate it, but is more trying to figure out his place within it,” explained Youssef in an interview with Deadline.
Okay, Ramy’s faith — his whole identity, really — is being tested. Maybe that’s why he acts the way he does. Fair enough. But that didn’t solve the whole problem for me. It doesn’t explain why he brings up Tahrir Square at a party of young people in Cairo, stupidly decides to walk alone through a desert, or couldn’t be bothered to stand up for Dena when her parents were holding her to such an obviously ridiculous double standard.
An interesting take from Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture actually posits that Ramy’s tone-deafness (which she calls blindness) is a strength of the show, not a weakness.
“Ramy is fantastically adept at identifying the absurdities in Ramy’s many overlapping, often contradicting roles. But it also contributes to one of the shows biggest strengths, which is its ability to capture the moments when Ramy is painfully blind to the people around him.”
When I set aside my anger at Ramy the character, I was able to see that his tone-deafness might actually be by design. In the moments when Ramy is, as VanArendonk puts it, blind to the people around him, the audience is able to insert themselves into the story in a way that’s completely unique to this series.
When Ramy says something that makes me put my head in my hands, lets his double standard mindset shine (even when Dena is plainly pointing it out), or does something without thinking it through I, the audience member, am forced into the narrative. By having a reaction — even a negative one — I must confront my own expectations, feelings, preconceptions, and values, and inspect how they compare and contrast with those shown on screen.
It’s a type of engagement that isn’t often seen with TV shows. And, now that I think about it, it’s exactly why this show feels so fresh, so original.
At the end of the first episode, Ramy runs into that old Hajj after a good first-date gone terribly wrong (because of Ramy’s own double standards, I might add) and rants to him about the frustration he feels.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, man. I look at my parents and how strong they are, and how they just know everything’s going to be okay. Always. Because they have God. And I believe in God. I really do man… And yeah, I have sex even though I’m not married and I’m probably gonna try mushrooms one day So what? That means I’m not a good Muslim? Like I can’t do it because I don’t follow all the rules, and the fucking judgments that are always just being put on us. And then… I do the same thing. I put the same fucking judgments on everyone around me. I’m just trying to be good.”
This is as good a thematic statement for Ramy as any.
As people in the modern world, we don’t follow all the rules. Others judge us, and then we turn around and do the same to them. Every one of us goes through the same kind of journey as Ramy — with religion or otherwise — and it’s a slippery slope of contradiction. But, as Ramy shows so well, that’s just what it means to be human.
None of the photos in this post are my own.