“This show is about conversation, and starting conversations that I think we should be having,” Ramy Youssef tells us in a Zoom interview. “I think that’s what’s so fun about this show is that this isn’t just about Arab problems. This is about human problems, and then we look at them through the Arab lens.”
Last year, the age of half-hour coming-of-age dramedies gave us what is undoubtedly one of the freshest depictions of Arab and Muslim culture on TV. Ramy was an almost immediate worldwide success, less than a month after its release, the show was renewed for a second season, earlier this year lead actor show creator Ramy Youssef nabbed a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a comedy series and Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali came onto season two for a starring role.
The show was irreverent, hilarious, raw, and everything Arab millennials had just never seen on screen before. Youssef made a show that didn’t wear its Arabisms on its sleeve for clout or tokenism; the show sought to do more than that, to show it all: the good, the bad and the unvarnished ugly.
“In season one, we really look at the aspirational part of Ramy, trying to figure out who he is, and season two is much more transformational,” Youssef adds. “We kind of see he realises who he is and he’s got some problems that he really needs to figure out, and we watch him try to transform.”
Ramy as a character is no hero, anti-hero, or villain. But it’s also not about highlighting the grey areas; he just is. And what the show quickly realises is that there’s this untapped, undiscovered well of realms to explore far beyond its eponymous protagonist. The show’s most dazzling muscle to flex are its side characters. This loveable band of lost souls trying to piece together an inch of sanity is perhaps the most fun to watch, especially juxtaposed to the unfiltered collapse of Ramy, who spends half of season two trying to squash his ego.
“I think so much of this show is figuring out what the characters need. We were so excited to put more plot in the second season so that we can really track what Ramy was going through,” Youssef highlights. “We wanted to sit with his problems more. I think by nature of sitting with those, the tone got darker. It kind of excited us, I think when things get darker and the pressure gets tighter, it also feels funnier.”
“Having the characters be as full as they are is something I’ve always wanted. Even in season one, I pushed to not be in three of the episodes. In terms of focus being on my character, I started in standup, so I have enough experience being the only person on stage. What I really like about a show like this is the ensemble. I live for the ensemble. I love writing for them, I love directing, all of it. A lot of the time more than me being screen myself,” Youssef adds.
What felt like a de facto ennui plaguing the characters in season one, lingered even more so in season two, in a way that leaves audiences uneasy. Now if you ask me, that makes for great TV. I had to personally watch some episodes of Modern Family to get the spirits somewhat up, but the show does accomplish its goal phenomenally. In the stride to kill Ramy’s ego, his self-centred dirtbag-ness, they succeed. As the credits roll in the season finale you realise they just did it, Ramy’s ego wasn’t just gently quelled. It was shoved out.
Amid all these shenanigans, the show doesn’t forget its other major goal: conversation. The show explores subject matters from the Arab-Muslim lens, be it gender identity, race, sexuality, or mental health. No stone is left unturned in what is arguably the first mainstream Arab media to show, with honesty, understanding, and self-reflection, the ugliness that resides in Arab communities, most notably this season in showing how anti-blackness manifests itself in Arabs both in diaspora and in the region.
“I think that as Arabs and Muslims we do get a bad go in the media. But I don’t think that we’re fragile, I think we’re very strong and that our humanity still shines,” said Youssef. “So I don’t want to ever make anything that’s just plainly protecting us, I want to make something that really opens up conversations that we need to have.”