The pandemic has kept many of us from leaving the house, but honestly, why would you want to? There is too much TV to watch to go outside. Outside doesn’t have Hulu or Netflix or HBO Max. To encourage you to stay home and stay safe, comedian/writer Rima Parikh and myself (two people who watched just as much TV in the before times) will be diving deep into the shows we’re loving or lovingly hate-watching, social-distance-style, over Google chat.
First up, the Hulu original series Ramy, comedian Ramy Youssef’s self-titled comedy about the struggles of trying to be a good Muslim in modern America when you can’t stop doing very non-Muslim things. Season two dropped in May, and the series has already been renewed for season three, so there’s no time like the present to binge.
Brianna Wellen: Before we dig into the most recent season of Ramy, let’s go back to the beginning. What was your first impression of the series when it came out last year?
Rima Parikh: When I first saw it, I was like, “OK, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Like I think there’s a certain expectation I have when I’m watching something that is based off a stand-up comic’s life where I’m like, “OK, I’m going to know where this is headed,” and I didn’t feel like that with Ramy. I especially liked that we had episodes that weren’t focused on Ramy season one (because that would be so, so exhausting to just . . . focus on the character Ramy for ten episodes), and I’m glad that’s something that was part of season two as well. What did you think when you first saw season one?
BW: I actually don’t think I was fully on board with the series until I saw the episodes in season one that focused on other characters. It’s rare for these self-titled, comic-driven shows to shift focus completely like that, and in this case it actually provided a much better and deeper understanding of Ramy himself. But even with Ramy’s storylines, though there were some of the expected punchlines and sort of strong male stand-up energy that comes with having your own show, the actual story was something that I’ve never seen before.
RP: Definitely. I think one thing that I really appreciated about the inclusion of non-Ramy-focused episodes that I didn’t fully appreciate until this season was that I feel like, among other things, it’s a way to talk about immigrant parents/immigrant families in a different way. I feel like there’s this trope in media/entertainment where second-gen comics/writers/etc. talk about their parents’ sacrifices coming here, the struggles they faced so that their kids could grow up here, then insert punchline about how “I’m not a doctor LOL” here, and then it’s just like, happily ever after. Like they did it. It’s done. They’ve moved here, done the whole “America” thing, and they’re rich or whatever. And one, I feel like it oversimplifies so much (and flattens the many nuances of what that experience is like) and two, it’s just so tired. And seeing Ramy’s parents as people who are dealing with their own shit felt like a very real way to talk about that (that Ramy is kind of a shit despite these sacrifices) without feeling hacky. Parents are lonely too! And Ramy is a shit!
BW: And Ramy’s parents also aren’t all great. And the immigration experience isn’t a monolith. The complexity of these characters and even how they relate to other immigrants in the show is really important for that. But to your point about Ramy being a shit: wow, season two Ramy is somehow even more of a shit than season one Ramy! And the worst part is he thinks he has it all figured out.
RP: It’s incredible. I didn’t expect season two to have the low-grade anxiety of Uncut Gems (for me), where you’re always on your toes because you know that Ramy is going to mess up. Like he has the self-awareness (it seems) to know that there are red flags, and that he needs to slow down, and he doesn’t. He’s just like, “Alright, I’m gonna do what I want.” I think that it’s impressive that I love a show about an awful, horny man.
BW: He really is just the horniest. I do want to ask, as a stand-up comedian who has encountered your own fair share of men talking about their horniness on stage, what is your general feeling about shows like this created by male comedians?
RP: I think my instinct is to be annoyed with them, because like anything that focuses on yourself (I mean stand-up included, so I’m calling myself out here), it’s gonna risk being circle-jerk-y or narcissistic. And especially with the other factors here, like an Arab American and Muslim comedian talking about his perspective as a guy, like there’s definitely the issue of like, “OK, is this going to turn into this guy being like, woe is me, my life is hard” and ignoring women/marginalized people within those communities, so I’m wary of that. And that is a criticism that a variety of Brown women have had with male stand-up comic shows/projects—like I’m thinking about when The Big Sick came out, and a lot of Brown women being like, “OK, way to throw us under the bus and show us as undesirable while you’re sad about not being able to date a white girl.” And I remember there was pushback from South Asian American men who were like, “You don’t understand, all my life I’ve never fit in, blah blah, white girl blah blah” without recognizing that, yes sweetie, South Asian American women have ALSO experienced what you’re talking about. You’re entitled to your own experience, of course, but it’s OK to acknowledge that your experience has blind spots.
And I know there was some of that with Ramy, too, both with last season and this season, of like, OK, how are Muslim women portrayed, and how is desire portrayed, and how there are limitations when women on this show are always going to have to be relational to Ramy, because it is his show. But also, with season one, there was a lot of praise with how women were portrayed because the writers’ room had women and Muslim women.
And with representing identities that we don’t see in media, I feel like there’s so much pressure for each piece of representation to be “the One” that has the “good representation,” and that’s an impossible task (and sometimes I do feel like that frustration also applies to the industry in general for not having more of these stories, vs. the individual creator for not encompassing all of them).
BW: I’m glad you brought this up. Especially in a time when we’re talking more and more about inclusion in every aspect of a project, to have women and Muslim women in a writers’ room for a show like this is an important distinction. And to focus in on Ramy’s sister and mother, plus the introduction of Zainab this season, it allows for a range of representations of the female Muslim experience while still within the scope of Ramy’s world.
RP: Yeah. And I think there’s obviously limitations to how far that range of Muslim women characters can go, since they do all have to connect to a complete trash boy. But it does make me excited about the hopefully near future when we get to see more shows/movies about messy Muslim women. Like I know there’s gotta be so many young women who are writing those now. Fatimah Asghar did Got Game? and Brown Girls and is doing her thing, but I know there’s more.
BW: I do think it helps, too, that Ramy, whether he meant to or not, made himself the least likable character on the show somehow, and that self-awareness of how disingenuous the “woe is me” of it all is makes that much more bearable. (Even the extremely unlikable Uncle Naseem got a redemption story this season, making him more sympathetic than Ramy at times.)
RP: I’m glad that Ramy is a fuckboy, all his friends are fuckboys, and we’re like, eye rolling throughout his “deep” moments but also sympathizing at certain points.
Uncle Naseem! That episode was !!!
BW: That was by far my favorite episode of this season. So for a quick recap of season two, based on the phrases I texted my sibling while watching, would be: “Mahershala Ali!” “Please tell me this dog doesn’t die.” “Breast milk?!” “I’m kind of proud of Ramy!” “Uncle Naseem!” “UGH RAMY.”
RP: HA. I think that sums it up pretty well. Actually the best spoiler-free recap I’ve read?
BW: What did you think of the story this season? In so many ways it felt like a huge departure from season one because of Ramy’s blind devotion to Sheik Ali (Mahershala Ali).
RP: Yeah it felt really different to me. I feel like I expected season two to feel like Ramy the character and Ramy the comic were the same person, and I was pleasantly surprised that it felt like Ramy the character had an arc that felt different from the person, and like a plausible evolution for where he’d go after the end of season one. But then again, I don’t know Ramy the person, so maybe it’s not so much of a departure. Hard to say. But I loved how complicated this arc felt in terms of his choice to devote himself to the sheik, as like this Hail Mary on how to be a better person. And it’s like, you wish it was that easy, Ramy.
BW: There were so many times when I was like wow IS it that easy? Even though there were a few moments where he really Ramy-ed it up, it wasn’t until the very end that things seemed to come crashing down. He ALMOST got away with it.
RP: He really did almost get away with it. Like there was still that feeling of like, OK, this is gonna crash and burn because it has to, but you’re also still teetering on like, OK, maybe it will work and things will be OK? Like your head almost believes what Ramy believes—that it’s actually gonna be fine once he does a little explaining, and everyone will understand. I don’t know where season three is going to pick up. Like I truly don’t.
BW: The way this season ended, it could go anywhere. I can even see, based on this season, even more attention being given to the other characters.
RP: Maybe we give up on Ramy and the show gets renamed Dena?
BW: I think it’s also worth mentioning, that this show is supposedly a comedy, but so much of the comedy comes from that Uncut Gems tension you mentioned.
RP: It’s so cringe.
BW: Again, this feels different from other comedian-driven shows because at no point do I feel like I’m watching Ramy sort of talk out his act with his friends, or act out jokes that he might tell on stage. It’s all a very different kind of punchline that allows the storytelling to feel much more authentic—even when the plot feels completely unrealistic, it’s still grounded in reality.
RP: And it’s not stuff that Ramy would be talking out with his friends in the back of the room at a show. Like he’s very, very ugly in this, and that’s not something that’s easy to admit to anyone, let alone yourself.
BW: OK, let’s wrap this up with some TIMELY SPECULATION. Ramy Youssef won the Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy, something that honestly shocked the hell out of me. I think we probably both agree that awards are mostly bullshit, but I can’t help but be curious about who will win the next one. Emmy nominations will be out on Tuesday, is Ramy gonna be on that list? The actor and/or the show?
RP: Ooooh I hope the show. Ramy’s great but I also feel like so much behind the scenes shit happened to get there and it really feels like the show is a collaborative effort. Like it seems like a lot of research and time went into figuring out exactly what this show needs to be for what they want to do. Also I feel like for people who did love the women characters, those were written by women, from my understanding. I want them to get credit.
BW: Absolutely. And that recognition and representation at that scale will only open more doors for the female/nonbinary/trans versions of Ramy to be made. More intersectionality for messy characters on TV!
RP: Yes! More dumb bitches on TV! I need them. OK maybe “dumb bitches” is reductive. I’m canceled. v