“YO had sex with a married woman during Ramadan! It was after Maghrib though, just so you know. It was during eating hours. Not that makes it OK … I don’t know. Does it?” If one mark of an outstanding show is that its dialogue is immediately recognizable out of context, we have a winner. The above lines can only be from Ramy (Channel 4).
This half-hour US dramedy sits alongside Girls, Atlanta, Insecure and Better Things in documenting a specific aspect of the modern American experience, in episodes that are profane but heartbroken, wistful but savvy. These shows tend to have a hero who doesn’t quite know what they’re doing with their life, and this is explicitly the case with Ramy (Ramy Youssef, who co-created the program and is its main writer), a thirtyish Muslim are of parents who immigrated to New Jersey from Egypt.
Ramy is single, directionless and aghast at his own selfishness: “I don’t consider anything. I just consider myself. That’s it. I only ever think about me and I hate it.” He has no trouble finding willing romantic partners but his sexual relationships jar with his faith, the devotion of which is still to be confirmed. He is observant enough to feel guilty about sex before marriage, but not religious enough to stop.
In season one, he reluctantly pledged to give up on dates outside his own religion and focus on finding a wife, but his new Muslim-only courting regime led to further ungodly transgressions: a woman who wanted him to throttle her during sex in the back of her car on the first date, the married woman and a third paramour who – in the transcendent season one finale, during which Ramy completed a rocky but beautiful pilgrimage to his grandfather’s house near Cairo – was ideal in every respect apart from being Ramy’s first cousin.
Season two puts Ramy back in Jersey, newly confused after his Egyptian adventure and at an all-time low. He’s lying in his bed in his parents’ house, listlessly devouring pornography while ploughing through bags of non-halal jelly sweets he buys from a silently judgmental clerk at the drugstore. “You look like shit,” says one of the crass-goof pals that dramedy protagonists tend to have, having burst into Ramy’s room to stage an intervention. “Somehow you got fatter and skinnier at the same time.”
After a chat with his regular imam goes badly – the recommendation is fasting and studying the Qur’an, which isn’t really Ramy’s vibe – our man gets a tip from his friend Michael (Michael Chernus), whose pleasing comedy shtick is to be the white guy at the mosque and also a baked-sounding slacker. Michael lauds Sheikh Ali Malik, prayer leader at the local Sufi mosque: “He’s so fire, dude, he’s all about the path of love. Like, real deal… he’s radical, bro.”
When Michael worries he might have misspoken about the sheikh, hastily clarifying that he’s “like, cool radical. Not … radical radical”, we have a perfect example of how lightly Ramy wears its rarity value. It’s still sadly remarkable for a TV show to feature two Muslims having a conversation that isn’t about them planning or foiling a terrorist atrocity. Ramy passes this test with ease, and now has a storyline about how a conversion to Sufism is seen by Ramy’s traditional Muslim family. But it is also the sort of show where a character explains how to pronounce the soft S in the middle of “Muslim” by advising that it’s the same sound as the one in “pussy”.
Once Ramy meets his new spiritual adviser, a headline piece of casting takes season two’s quality up a notch. Sheikh Ali Malik is played by Mahershala Ali, whose statuesque assurance is a brilliant comic foil for Youssef’s gabbling immaturity. Their first scene together is, characteristically, just about to reach a place of tender depth when a rude gag pulls the rug. “Have you showered since you last masturbated?” asks the sheikh, sober and deadpan, inquiring as to whether Ramy is clean and ready to pray. “You sure? No drips in your drawers?
In the second half of Channel 4’s opening double bill (every episode is already available via Starzplay), season two gets serious when a meeting with a traumatized Iraq war veteran lands the Sufi mosque in big trouble, and it looks as if Ramy’s fuzzy millennial approach to Islam may finally have proper consequences. It’s a difficult tonal shift that the series can be trusted to pull off. Very few other shows would even try.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism