Ramy, a sharp, POV-based comedy by Muslim-American Ramy Youssef, was one of 2019’s most original and promising new shows. The joint Hulu/A24 production spent most of its 10-episode first season upending, with a wink and plenty of heart, both the audience expectations of idiosyncrasies within a Muslim family in New Jersey, and the protagonist’s bumbling attempts to live a more spiritually enlightened life.
The first season was a boon for critics – an underrepresented perspective, daring, underseen, worthy of a major Golden Globe win – but its second season, which premiered last week, lifts it to a must-see: an ambitious, contradictory and refractive exploration of one man’s sisyphean trek toward meaning and spirituality in a deeply profane, messy and sometimes wondrous world. And, more pointedly for viewers in the fractious summer of 2020: a portrait of the many ways self-improvement turns self-serving, apologies mask as empty pleas for absolution, and enlightenment serves as exploitation of another.
Ramy is a contradictory character, a spiritual jester attuned to both Friday prayers and Friday night – “I’m like at both. I wanna pray, I wanna go to the party, and I’m breaking some rules, I’m following others,” he tells his cousin in Egypt in one of his many attempts to justify spinning his wheels. In the first season’s final two transfixing episodes, Ramy travels to Egypt, a country he has romanticized but not visited in years, in search of a magic clarity pill on who to be, but instead of a Muslim panacea finds a real country of complicated people – naively Trump-supporting relatives, alcohol. His one moment of communal release and transcendence, at a Sufi center in Cairo, manifests as an attraction to his cousin.
For its second season, Ramy recruits two-time Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali to play a Sufi sheikh leading a mixed congregation at an adapted church picketed by Islamophobic locals. Reeling from his … problematic tryst in Egypt, called out by his friends for skipping prayers and masturbating too much, Ramy seeks the sheikh’s mentorship with the energy of a skittish puppy dog. “I feel like I have this hole inside of me that’s always been there, this kind of emptiness, and I’m always trying to fill it with something,” he unspools to the sheikh. His comedy lies in small justifications and mundane excuses – he had sex with a married woman during Ramadan, but “I just want you to know,” he reassures, that it was during eating hours. Ramy’s intent seems straightforward enough: to kill the ego. But the application proves harder, the glitch of the whole season. Ramy commits to honesty, then dodges the truth on the last time he masturbated with a technicality.
Ramy’s enduring – at times, too enduring – passivity in the face of consequences defines the whole second season, which like the first contains several side-character capsules in which he disappears entirely (Hiam Abbass, as his brittle yet deeply sympathetic mother Maysa, once again delivers a standout turn). The sophomore outing’s 10 episodes are darker and more damning of Ramy’s self-justifying antics – each thrust into the journey of enlightenment, leavened by good intentions and his flirtatious charm, only digs deeper into a mountain of self-obfuscating deflection and deception. (“I’m sorry, I feel like this is all my fault,” is one of his fallbacks, guilt relief masked as a probing apology). His recruitment of an Iraq war veteran struggling with PTSD to the Sufi center models being a “good Muslim”, but ultimately serves more to impress the sheikh; likewise with his attempt to amend for his disastrous outreach with a fever-dream fundraising trip to a rich Emirati’s Connecticut estate.
But the most egregious deception is his earnestly enacted delusion that he’s in love with the sheikh’s daughter, Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo), a wary, if underwritten, spitfire deeply committed to her faith, including saving oneself for marriage. The relationship goes (stop here to avoid spoilers) foreseeably awry, and when Ramy wakes to an empty marriage bed, he’s greeted with the sheikh’s death stare. The scene is a masterclass in flailing appeals to likability filling a bottomless hole of deferred personal responsibility; swaddled in a sheet as if an overgrown, diapered toddler, Ramy pleads before the sheikh for unearned forgiveness, for an explanation, for opportunity as “a place to grow from”. Under pressure, guilt-ridden and exposed, Ramy mistakes using someone as reciprocity. “The rest of the world exists so you can reflect on it and perfect yourself, is that it?” responds the barely composed shiekh. “Fuck you, Ramy you little fuck, you little fucking boy. You hurt people.”
Ramy’s second season dropped on 29 May, as protests over the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and of racist police brutality in the United States erupted across the country. Obviously, the show was not made in that context – and, of course, it is a show firmly rooted in one man’s perspective of Islam and his self-serving attempts to adhere to it – but, as a white person, it’s hard not to view the character’s unworked attempts at introspection and their resulting damage in the second season as depressingly timely. In the past week, white people across the country belatedly “woke up” to systemic racism with a series of, often, performative posts, barrages to black people asking for educational “resources” and well-meaning but silent black tiles crowding out critical space on the Black Lives Matter hashtag (I am not exempt from this).
To be clear, Ramy is a brilliant show for many reasons, especially the space devoted to its female and middle-aged characters; nor is the new season unimpeachable (see: a capsule episode for his sister Dena (May Calamawy), which does little to expand her character beyond the first season). But perhaps the most potent insight in this second season is the lead’s amenable but pathological defiance of personal responsibility, his well-meaning and winsome brew of good intentions and self-obsession. Ramy’s perspective might be hyperspecific, but that complex is not.
Ramy is available on Hulu in the US and on Starz Play on Amazon Prime in the UK