A comedy based on Ramy Youssef’s life was never going to look quite like anything else on TV.
Executive produced by Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael, and “Transparent” EP Bridget Bedard, “Ramy” turns a coming-of-age lens on the kind of man who rarely gets that kind of spotlight. Youssef’s onscreen persona (also named Ramy) is a first-generation Egyptian American. Youssef himself is a stand-up comedian, but he leaves that part of his life behind and therefore avoids the tried and true “struggling comic tries to make it” storyline that so many other shows have done before. “Ramy” even eschews a big city setting for a suburban one, a choice that almost feels startling for a thoughtfully directed single camera comedy like this. Instead of watching Ramy stumble through trendy Brooklyn coffee shops, we see Ramy and his family go through their lives in New Jersey, where his parents first grew roots when they immigrated.
Most significantly, Ramy isn’t the kind of Muslim that’s more familiar for TV and film to include (insomuch Muslims are ever included at all). Ramy doesn’t roll his eyes at his family’s Muslim traditions; he actively embraces them, sometimes even moreso than anyone else. He is a practicing Muslim who truly believes in his faith, and that alone makes a show centering on his experience a startling, welcome exception to an increasingly monotonous rule.
And not for nothing, exploring the life of a Muslim man who isn’t ashamed of his faith gives “Ramy” more room to explore stories that so much of TV has otherwise actively ignored or outright disdained. And while the show does depict the grueling, blatant racism that Ramy and families like his face every day — especially in a flashback episode to a teen Ramy reacting to the devastating aftermath of 9/11 — it devotes far more time to them just existing together, trading complaints about annoying family members and their mosque’s latest gossip.
Ramy’s attempts to balance the demands of his faith with his values, and those of the (many) people who don’t understand them, also make well trod subject matter feel fresher. His perspective on sex and dating, for instance, raise and change the stakes TV is so used to trotting out on cue. Ramy doesn’t drink, which he often doesn’t communicate to non-Muslim women he’s dating in a bid to keep from having uncomfortable conversations. When he decides to take Ramadan more seriously, he dreads having to tell a Jewish girl he’s interested in that he can’t have sex until it’s over. When he breaks the rules — either of Islam or ones he’s set for himself — it sends him spinning into existential crises about who he is, what he values, and what kind of man he ultimately wants to be.
But one of the biggest strengths of “Ramy” is that, contrary to the narrow focus of the show’s title, the show goes out of its way to flesh out other characters beyond Ramy himself. Though it takes a few episodes to get there, this holds particularly (and most refreshingly) true for the Muslim women in and around his life. We see his shy and lonely mother (a heartbreaking Hiam Abbas) struggle to find her place in the community outside her relationship to her family members, who are increasingly dismissive of her wants and needs. We see his restless sister Dena (May Calamawy) gape at the clear differences in how the family treats her versus her brother, opening the show up to broader points about how Muslim women rarely get as much time and consideration, both onscreen and off, as Muslim men. These moments are good enough that it’s hard not to want a “Dena” spinoff that could explore these frustrations in more death.
“Ramy” doesn’t always land every joke; sometimes, it even drops punchlines entirely in order to chase a more contemplative vibe that might not appeal to everyone. But to its credit, “Ramy” isn’t especially trying to appeal to everyone. Instead, it digs into the specificity of its star’s perspective and experience to deliver something much more unique — and that, more than anything, is what makes it so worthwhile.