Ramy Youssef proves he’s much more self-aware than his spiritually lost lead with an expansive, insightful, and inclusive sophomore season.
As more people spend their twenties developing into who they want to become rather than settling down and committing to their current identity, more TV shows are focusing on that extended maturation period between teenage folly and adult responsibilities. From “Girls” to “Superstore,” and “You’re the Worst” to “New Girl,” plenty of comedies have mined the awkward and exciting time when personal decisions come with extra pressure, whether it’s from parents impatient to see children follow in their footsteps, the imposing demands of societal standards, or an internal desire to just hurry up and figure out your life already.
Viewers wouldn’t be blamed for shouting that at select 20-something TV characters, given how many shows have tackled this modern day “arrested development” (and how many have done it badly). But in its first season, “Ramy” found multiple ways to freshen things up. Framing the eponymous character’s quest for self-fulfillment around a crisis of faith added an intriguing new level; that his wayward journey was brought on by how well the son of Egyptian immigrants has assimilated to American culture only deepened our connection to Ramy — the push and pull he feels is both familiar and specific. But even in this first season, when we were first getting to know the horny little dreamer, Youssef sagely expanded the show’s focus beyond his main character to include episodes told from his mother and sister’s perspectives.
Season 2 sees further expansion, as Ramy keeps making mistakes. With excellent pacing, solid structure, and a keen sense of humor, “Ramy” finds the kind of emotional assuredness its main character craves. It’s a smarter, better show for being so hard on Ramy, in part because it knows him well enough to not let the whole story rest on one young millennial’s shoulders.
Still, Ramy makes for an ideal jumping off point. It helps that this New Jersey kid is far removed from the Garden State’s favorite TV son, Tony Soprano; Ramy is a progressive, young, Egyptian-American who’s quest for fulfillment isn’t through therapy, but Allah. Hulu’s first season saw Ramy trying to reconcile religious traditions of an older Muslim generation with the accepted customs of today; he struggled to connect with women, his friends, and his family without betraying either his faith or his own desires.
That conflict reached a crisis in the finale, when Ramy traveled to Cairo to visit his grandfather, before hooking up with his cousin, Amani (Rosaline Elbay). As Season 2 starts, Ramy is in full-on repentance mode. He’s torn up over his love life (or lack thereof), his porn addiction, and his adrift, purposeless state. So, like plenty of fed-up and directionless youth before him, Ramy commits and commits hard: to Sheikh Ali Malik, played by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. The Sheikh is a Sufi leader who runs a mosque similar to the one Ramy visited in Egypt with Amani: a small group gets more individualized attention and are held more accountable for their behavior than the socially conservative mosque Ramy used to frequent. The Sheikh has already recruited a loyal following built off his “cool” reputation, in part because of his wisdom, charm, and that added exclusivity.
Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu
Ramy manages to win the Malik’s favor and begins following his teachings to a “T.” He starts praying before family dinner, monitoring his diet, and holding a strict study schedule. But like many naive, overenthusiastic disciples, Ramy can be a bit too eager to please his new mentor. Without spoiling any of the early events, the Sheikh is soon tested by Ramy as much as Ramy is tested by the Sheikh, and as they reach a crossroads, Youssef starts exploring other characters.
Nearly half of the 10-episode second season is told from a perspective that’s not Ramy’s. His sister Dena (May Calamawy) takes over Episode 5, examining the delicate balance between pride and humility that separates generations; his father, Farouk (Amr Waked) makes a compelling lead in Episode 8, which puts an interesting twist on how parents can be both frustrated by and appreciate their children’s stagnation; Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli) anchors a surprising Episode 9, but his sister (and Ramy’s mom) Maysa (Hiam Abbass) wins the prize for top standalone episode. What should be a “softball” final step to citizenship gets complicated by prejudice and anxiety, and Maysa’s solo journey becomes an affecting testament to both open-mindedness and resiliency, with Abbass giving another confident, endearing turn.
Each of these half-hour diversions from Ramy’s journey both add to our understanding of his character and the broader story the series strives to tell; despite its title’s singular subject, “Ramy” wants to examine how faith effects everyone. What Dena faces as a practicing Muslim woman isn’t the same as Ramy, or even their crass Uncle Naseem, and Youssef (who writes or co-writes every episode) doesn’t let Ramy get in the way of their stories. Even an episode that ostensibly follows Ramy ends up with more to say about his friend, Steve (Steve Way). As Ramy gets more and more wrapped up in his faith, the Sheikh, and a budding romance, Steve feels more and more separated from his friend — which isn’t a foreign emotion for a wheelchair-bound young man with muscular dystrophy. To Steve, faith is an impediment to a more fulfilling life, not a pathway to one. The way in which Youssef expresses their reconnection is a bit severe, but it still represents Steve’s reality in aptly unflinching manner. This isn’t about Ramy, it’s about Steve, and the story sticks by him, even when it’s difficult.
Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu
By the time Season 2 wraps, it would be easy to argue that Ramy hasn’t grown up much, if at all. Some may see that as a slight, but it’s really an asset. Ramy is trying. He’s putting in the effort. He may be flailing and falling short, but it’s the effort that makes him endearing. Too many series are content with watching lost characters make mistakes simply because they’re lost; “Ramy” frames the temptations and traps facing its main character with enough context to make each choice understandable. Plus, before Ramy’s behavior gets repetitive or overindulgent, Youssef shifts the story to new characters who can carry more than their fair share of the dramatic weight.
“Ramy” isn’t really all that interested in malaise; it’s interested in purpose, no matter who needs it or where it comes from. Combine that with great performances, including a commanding and quietly hilarious turn from Ali (who has always known how to inject very, very funny moments into his roles), and Season 2 avoids embodying its main character’s befuddlement. “Ramy” may focus on arrested development, but it never lets itself get locked up.
“Ramy” Season 2 premieres Friday, May 29 on Hulu.