Eight years ago, Arab American actor and comedian Ramy Youssef moved to Los Angeles from the east coast, looked around and wondered where the other Muslim actors were and what projects they were working on.
Given the rarity in Hollywood of thoughtful scripts about Arabs and Muslims, Youssef ended up creating and producing his own show—a self-titled comedy loosely based on his life. Executive produced by Jerrod Carmichael (The Carmichael Show) and Bridget Bedard (Transparent), Ramy is streaming on Hulu now.
The main character, Ramy—pronounced “rah-mee,” and played by Yousseff—is a millennial living in New Jersey with his mother (Hiam Abbas) and father (Amr Waked), who emigrated from Egypt, and his sharp-tongued younger sister Dena (May Calamawy), who, depending on the situation, points out sexism with subtlety or sass.
The 10 episodes, 22 minutes each, are designed to be binge-watched—which Youssef called the “most 2019” part of the production after a screening in Los Angeles last week. Episodes are not resolved neatly, he added, because “that would be sci-fi.” The plot’s primary tension comes from Ramy’s grappling with believing in God and wanting to be a “good” Muslim, or what he perceives as such, and everyday life in the U.S.—including navigating dating and sex, peer pressure and Islamophobia.
Yet the show contains so much more. Although a comedy—and it will make you laugh—it offers surprisingly honest and even melancholy moments, a welcome change to the American sitcom. It also challenges gender roles and assumptions in interesting, nuanced ways.
Take, for instance, the representation of Ramy’s mom, a Palestinian woman who is her family’s matriarch and anchor. In an episode told from her point of view, the show reveals how lonely life can be in an unwelcome country, especially when your inner circle takes you for granted. In another episode, Ramy decides he’s ready to find love and confronts, and unpacks, his own expectations that Muslim women be chaste—an expectation he doesn’t have of non-Muslim women.
Youssef didn’t set out to make “the first” of anything, or a guidebook on how to be Muslim. He just wanted to tell stories about a family and their problems. (He does hope, however, that the series will be a conversation starter, and that families will tune in together.)
It’s refreshing to see a straight, cis guy admit that he has a lot to learn, especially when it comes to his own sexism. Along the way, viewers of all backgrounds will likely find some thread in Ramy that makes them ponder how they can do better, too.