The United States is a difficult country to live in if you believe in anything. Our nation’s institutions fail us frequently and disastrously; our politics favor corporations over people; our cultural discourse is frequently weighted toward the cynical and disingenuous. Faith must be practiced, and a belief in most things — social justice, an equitable society, even the American Dream — is rarely rewarded.
Religious faith is even harder. Any non-Christian belief is barely recognized or accommodated, and even if you fall into a form of widely accepted Christianity, its prominence in the culture is rarely felt from within, eschewed in favor of an endless war against secular culture. America is not a nation of believers, and our pop culture reflects that. In its second season, Ramy, Hulu’s award-winning comedy created by star Ramy Youssef, is about being a believer and how hard a thing that is to be in America.
Picking up shortly after the first season finale, Ramy begins with Ramy Hassan (Youssef) returning from his trip to Egypt severely depressed. He had gone in the hopes of connecting with his spirituality and his family and instead ended up sleeping with his cousin. Now, he’s back home in New Jersey, and he cannot stop masturbating or eating candy — so he decides to do something about it and devotes himself to becoming a better Muslim.
This forms the spine of Ramy’s second season. In his desire to be better, he leaves his mosque and pledges himself to a new spiritual leader, Sheikh Ali (Mahershala Ali) who agrees to teach him. Ramy, unfortunately, is a difficult pupil, sure he wants to do the right thing but hopelessly lost as to why. Much like in season 1, the series liberally expands its scope beyond Ramy, with episodes dedicated to his family and friends, taking every opportunity to contrast and complicate Ramy’s limited view with another perspective. In one episode, he unexpectedly runs into a former adult film star after spending several episodes getting off to porn; in another, his desire to absolve himself leads to him pushing Sheikh Ali to welcome a man he barely knows into their mosque — a vet with PTSD that ultimately results in tragedy.
As that last part suggests, Ramy season 2 is often a very dark show, much more so than its first, which already had plenty of bite accompanying its comedy. In diving even deeper into faith, Ramy, by necessity, goes long on its companion: shame. Multiple episodes have some of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve seen on TV this year. However, the cringe comedy is also accompanied by a wonderful and warm empathy. The series presents a worldview that’s not interested in religion as a means of absolving people’s worst impulses, but as another avenue by which they can be understood. It’s a path to understand yourself and others as well as another avenue to let everyone down. In other words, it’s just a way to be human.
In being so openly messy, Ramy attempts to resist the urge to characterize it as the Muslim American comedy, rooting itself in a cast of characters that have experiences that can be universal to its community — most notably, islamophobia, along with a more general American hostility toward immigrants — but also with significant flaws of their own. It’s good representation without the pressure to be representative. Ramy, the character, has an anti-Semitic uncle, a mother whose ignorance results in unintentional bigotry, and a best friend with muscular dystrophy who is often incredibly selfish. But Ramy, the show, always takes the time to tell their unvarnished stories in a well-rounded way. It’s full of people doing things good and bad, trying to make sense of a world that is both nonsensical and often hostile toward them.
The result is a tremendous show that is heartbreaking, uncomfortable, and wickedly funny. It holds nothing back and feels complete even as it remains resolutely open-ended. Despite the popular notion that religion is where we go to find answers, Ramy offers few, if any at all. Maybe the problem is that Ramy, no matter how hard he tries, doesn’t actually believe in anything yet. How could he? He was raised in America.