Five months after its US premiere, Ramy – 'the best show not on Australian television' in Chris Boyd’s rarely humble opinion – drops on STAN this week.
Deeply touching and unpredictable. Steve Way and Ramy Youssef in Ramy, courtesy of Stan.
With his good-cop/bad-cop buddies taunting him – “you’re gonna die alone, bro... and your hairline, it’s not looking good” – and his mother urging him to look for a girl at the North Jersey mosque, Ramy Hassan (Ramy Youssef) belatedly concedes it’s time to get serious about girls and religion. But that’s easier decided than done! (He sputters to his mother: “What am I supposed to say? ‘Can I get your father’s number?’”)
The son of liberal Egyptian immigrants, Ramy – the lad – is an oil and vinegar blend of shyness and boldness. Apart from his sophisticated and smart-mouthed sister Dena (May Calamawy, The Long Road Home), there isn’t a woman alive that Ramy can’t charm. But he’s like the actor who auditions brilliantly but isn’t up to the part he’s won the right to play.
Much of the leavening comedy in this coming-of-middle-age drama series erupts – volcanically – from the misunderstandings, snap judgements and occasional overreactions of the women Ramy is seeing. He constantly finds himself occupying the low moral ground. His life is, nevertheless, consequence-free.
Ramy’s too embarrassed to reveal to his Jewish girlfriend Chloe (PEN15 co-creator Anna Konkle) that he doesn’t drink at all: “I’m at my limit,” he says when she offers to buy him one, but he has never once told her that his limit is zero, for religious reasons. She is shocked by the casual deception and promptly breaks up with him. (It doesn’t help that she has just found him filling a used condom with water, looking for leaks!)
Ramy enlists his parents to use “the network” to tee up dates with eligible Muslim women. They find Nour (Natasha Khan lookalike Dina Shihabi, Altered Carbon, Jack Ryan), an accountant in a sensible cable knit sweater. After an excruciating date, Nour and Ramy escape their humourless hookah-sucking chaperone and wander back to Nour’s car. Not to put too fine a point on it, Nour is DTF. When he demurs, she says cheerfully: “of course, there are other things we can do... choke me while I finger myself.”
She reads his hesitation – probably correctly – as a function of his desire to find a nice wife and a mother for his future children. “I’m in this little Muslim box in your head,” she says, exasperated and breathless, before throwing him out of her car and roaring off.
Each of the ten episodes in this deeply touching and unpredictable series is a small but weighty journey. Episode four is devoted to Ramy’s first orgasm at the age of 12, on September 11, 2001... a day when he lost all of his old school friends, but made a new one: a kid with muscular dystrophy named Steve (Nicolas Noblitt as the boy, Steve Way as the adult) who has called him ‘terrorist’ ever since.
Episode six is devoted to Dena’s frustration and rebellion, and her decision at the age of 25 to lose her virginity. Seven focuses on Dena and Ramy’s mother Maysa (Hiam Abbass, The Succession) whose life is almost as circumscribed as her daughter’s.
It’s hard to say if the clashing styles and contrasting preoccupations of individual episodes is a case of “too many cooks” or if it was a deliberate show-running decision. With its different pairings of writers and directors, the first season of Ramy has the choppy feel of an anthology series; but there is just enough commitment to the overarching theme – Ramy’s belated moral puberty and his desire to be a good person – to give it a satisfying coherence. And, crucially, characterisation is consistent and defined. From key players to bit parts, Ramy is peopled with characters we can walk around. The ensemble – and the writing for them – are both impressively strong. Only the patriarch of the house, Farouk, gets weaker and weaker with familiarity.
Before I talk you out of watching, let me assure you that Ramy is up there with the very best of 2019. It’s on a par with Russian Doll and the second season of Fleabag. If ever you’ve considered Stan’s 30 day free trial, this might be excuse enough to give it a crack.
Ramy, Season 1, Created by Ramy Youssef, Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch. Produced by A24 for Hulu. 10 episodes, 23-31 minutes. Streaming on Stan from Friday, 13 September.