DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Last week, Hulu dropped the third season of its acclaimed comedy-drama series "Ramy," which stars Ramy Youssef as a millennial trying to make sense of his life as a Muslim in America. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says watching this new season made it clearer than ever that Youssef has created a great show bursting with ideas, jokes, provocations and genuinely deep emotion. Here's John.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Late in the new season of "Ramy," its Egyptian American title character is talking with Dennis, a white guy who's converted to Islam. Far stricter in his Muslim beliefs than Ramy himself, Dennis vehemently divides the world into things that are either halal, meaning permissible for Muslims, or Haram, meaning they're not. Gazing intently at Ramy, he says, only engage in halal comedy. That's just what the show's creator and star, Ramy Youssef, refuses to do. Ever since this award-winning Hulu series hit the screen back in 2019, Ramy has juggled the halal and the haram to fashion a daringly brilliant comic drama about Muslim life in America that aims higher than almost anything else on TV.
Its third season finds Youssef leading us into murkier waters than ever before. As you may know, Youssef draws on his own life for his character, Ramy Hassan, the millennial son of an immigrant Muslim family in New Jersey, led by his Egyptian father, Farouk, played by Amr Waked, and a Palestinian mother, Maysa - that's Hiam Abbas. His patriarchal parents favor Ramy over his rebellious sister Dena - that's May Calamawy - even though she, not he, is the hardworking, reliable one.
Ramy wants to be a good guy and spiritual Muslim, yet even as he refuses intoxicants and dutifully prays, he's constantly watching porn and sleeping around. As he vows to change, his friends - devout Ahmed, acid-tongued Steve and blustering Mo, who now has his own show on Netflix - all think him a galloping narcissist. And in fact, over the first two seasons, we come to realize that as boyish and amusing as Ramy can be, he wreaks a lot of emotional damage on those around him.
Season 2 ended so perfectly, with a cruel betrayal and Ramy once again hoping to become moral, that I thought the series could have stopped right there. I wondered if there was anything more to get out of watching Ramy shuttle between Muslim aspirations and sexual shenanigans. Youssef evidently sensed this, too. In the jam-packed Season 3, Ramy turns his attention away from both God and sex and, to the horror of his parents, gets into business with Israelis. Even as supermodel Bella Hadid joins the cast, Youssef deals with tricky topics that American shows usually skirt, including abortion and Palestine. And he does it all in a show that's funny.
Here, Ramy responds goofily when his Israeli contact says that Arabs and Jews have deep affinities.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Our traditions have a lot in common.
RAMY YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) Yeah, I've always felt that, that we share this deep Christmas-less-ness (ph) you know? Like, not celebrating Christmas, right? Like, the whole country, this whole country is, like, worshipping Santa. And we're like, no, I don't - like, something - this doesn't feel right, you know? I remember being in kindergarten. Everyone's talking about Santa. I look over at this kid, Ari (ph), and I'm like, dude, we know the truth, you know? We know this is just, like, a capitalist lie. Like, Santa is not - it's not in the texts. Like, none of it, none of the testaments.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Over there, we have conflicts. But over here, you see our brotherhood.
POWERS: "Ramy" has been rightly lauded for its groundbreaking portrait of Muslim American life from the inside. Interested in everyone, Youssef devotes whole episodes to both of Ramy's parents, who are disappointed in their hopes for a grander life in America; to his sister, who's tormented by Islam's values; and to his bullying Uncle Naseem - that's Laith Nakli - a coarse anti-Semite and misogynist who has sex with men but refuses to think he's gay.
The show sets out to transcend cliches about Muslim American life and reveal its vast range, giving us devout doctors, porn stars, hardworking immigrants and charismatic Sufi leaders like the one majestically played in Season 2 by Mahershala Ali.
Season 3 takes us overseas to depict an Egypt far different to the one Westerners normally see, gets Ramy stuck at a checkpoint in Israel and drops into a gaudy Muslim expo in New Jersey, where everyone from jewelers to media-savvy imams are working to rake in the dough. Youssef keeps pushing into places nobody else has gone. His Season 1 episode on 9/11 is the best thing I've seen on being a Muslim in America after the attacks. It's in this episode that Ramy meets his truth-telling friend Steve, wheelchair bound with muscular dystrophy. He's played by comedian Steve Way, who has the disease. They bond when Steve jokingly greets him as terrorist. Ramy and Steve's scenes throughout the series bristle with a fearless honesty that's startling.
Youssef's boldness doesn't falter in Season 3. Even as Ramy grows increasingly unlikable, his family appears to be falling apart, with Farouk, Maysa and Dena each being swallowed up by confusion and feelings of failure. You wonder whether the series will wind up being a traditional comedy in which order is restored to a chaotic world or is turning into a slow-motion tragedy in which everything that felt solid when the series began implodes. It's one measure of "Ramy's" richness and complexity that, even in this new season's finale, we still can't be sure.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the Hulu series "Ramy." On tomorrow's show, actor, writer and performer Rachel Bloom, best known for starring in and co-creating the Emmy Award-winning show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." She has a new memoir called "I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are." And she stars in the new Hulu series "Reboot," about writers and cast members rebooting a family sitcom from the early 2000s. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF EL MASREYEEN'S "LOUNGA 79") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.