Hulu’s “Ramy” was a critical success when it released in April last year — one can’t help but ponder the quietness and subtlety that surrounded both its release and its cultural impact since then. Despite positive reviews and a best actor win at the Golden Globes in January, the show’s creator and star, Ramy Youssef, wasn’t exactly a breakout after the show dropped. The niche that the show has carved out for itself is something Youssef cheekily referenced in his acceptance speech after he won the award, saying, “Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show.”
But far from being unwatchable, the specificity through which “Ramy” approaches its subject material — or perhaps, its lack thereof — is its greatest strength. The first episode, for example, follows Ramy Hassan (Ramy Youssef), a 20-something Muslim American living in a tight-knit New Jersey neighborhood, grappling with questions about faith and identity. The show tackles these questions in a way that feels true to life, through moments and conversations that feel incredibly mundane. For instance, when Ramy’s white girlfriend becomes upset with him for being covert about his refusal to drink alcohol, he responds, “I thought maybe you’d be into the idea of me being culturally different but hate that I actually believe in God.”
It’s just one of many moments throughout the series that threads a perceptive, complex cultural dialogue through the casual proceedings of daily life. The tension dissipates within moments, and we’re quick to find ourselves following Ramy in a different setting: at work, at the family dinner table, on a date, at the mosque. The show serves as a series of snapshots of his life, as well as the lives of his Egyptian immigrant parents and his sister, Dena. Not only does “Ramy” seamlessly weave these snapshots together with depth and insight, but the show also manages to maintain a starkly dry, subversive sense of humor throughout.
The majority of “Ramy” takes on a singular perspective, as the audience follows Ramy through various experiences that challenge his understanding of himself and of his faith. While many of these episodes focus on his romantic life, the best of them portray him as a conflicted individual grappling with his own standards and beliefs. The third episode, for example, titled “A Black Spot on the Heart,” sees Ramy grappling with his first experience with drugs. After a day of self-labeled poor choices, he finds himself at a mosque, talking through his decisions with a man cleaning the empty building late in the evening. In a charming finale montage, Ramy decides to rid himself of his conflicted feelings by deep-cleaning the building himself.
Some of the best episodes of the series, however, don’t focus on Ramy at all. One of these episodes, “Refugees,” focuses on Ramy’s sister Dena (May Calamawy), a graduate student in her mid-20s coming to terms with her sexuality, which had been a taboo topic for her entire life. Another episode in the series, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” switches gears from the first-generation experiences of Ramy and Dena and focuses on Ramy’s mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbas), who takes up a job as a Lyft driver to meet new people after becoming tired of her life at home.
The most refreshing aspect of “Ramy” is not merely its representation of a modern Muslim American family — representation that is sorely lacking in most film and television — but also the realism through which it tackles this representation. The representation in “Ramy” is not merely cultural, as it also captures the complicated family dynamics that often inhabit multigenerational immigrant families in the United States. As Youssef himself has said in interviews, where there is representation for first-generation Americans, the narrative of them rejecting their parents’ religion or cultural values prevails over the narrative of them adopting or adapting them into their own lives.
Season one of “Ramy” feels as complete as it is unfinished. That is, while it introduces a plethora of themes, characters and storylines that audiences can catch up on when season two releases in May, no part of the series feels underdeveloped. The questions that the show introduces feel unanswered, not because of a lack of attention to detail, but because the show forces its characters and its audience to think outside of their comfort zones. Ramy is far from a perfect character, but “Ramy,” the show, comes pretty darn close.