The co-creator and lead of Hulu's stellar new comedy deserves Emmy attention

By Darren Franich
June 13, 2019 at 04:23 PM EDT
Barbara Nitke/Hulu
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This year, the Emmy comedy categories are overcrowded with talent and achievement, buzzy new sensations and swan-songing icons of 2010s sitcommery. So here’s my special plea for all the Emmy voters out there: Don’t forget about Ramy. The spectacular Hulu series stars stand-up comic Ramy Youssef as a wandering version of himself, an underemployed twentysomething living with his parents, juggling his Muslim heritage with the daily grind of Jersey living.

Youssef created the series with Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, and Ramy’s first 10 episodes quickly evolve in a unique and hilarious direction, merging mournful-wacky family comedy with a culture-spanning quest for identity. I suspect it’s too much to ask for an Outstanding Comedy nomination — and Hulu has already ordered a second season, so Ramy’s already in the running for 2020. But I hope the TV Academy will take another look at Youssef’s profound accomplishments.

As a performer, he’s dazed and confused, whiplashing Ramy the character between urges spiritual and physical. Ramy does things that are stupid — the word “sinful” comes to mind, given the show’s sincere treatment of religion — and yet it’s impossible not to empathize with him. So many characters on television in 2019 meet the madness of the world halfway by going a little crazy themselves. Youssef embodies a more whimsical strand of contemporary-crisis psychology, trapped between different conceptions of how he is supposed to feel.

Remarkably, in the first season of Ramy, Youssef’s most brilliant creative contribution is behind the camera. He doesn’t appear at all in the fourth episode, “Strawberries,” a flashback episode to Ramy’s adolescence. Youssef wrote the episode, though, and directed it with a dreamy-dark playfulness that merges nostalgic innocence with traumatizing tension

“Strawberries” stars Elisha Henig — the creepy Sinner season 2 kid who, like Youssef, had a memorable turn on Mr. Robot — as young Ramy. He’s a kid cusping on teendom at a very specific cultural moment. In the very first scene, he’s logging into a dirty-talk chat room, a 12-year-old looking for some very specific how-to advice. This could almost be the start of a teen sex farce — there’s an immediate, and explicit, reference to 1999’s American Pie — and the laughs in “Strawberries” initially rise up from the comedy of pubertal embarrassment. Ramy’s pals are already all talking about masturbation. He has no real idea what they’re talking about.

The twist in “Strawberries” arrives unexpectedly. Ramy goes to the bathroom in school with a hilariously un-dirty magazine, a vanilla consumer magazine called Hometime Goods with a vaguely maternal cover model. Before he can do anything, history intervenes. Cries of sorrow and fear echo through the school corridors, and every classroom is watching the news. The date is Sept. 11, 2001, and the television is telling a horrified nation that a Muslim terrorist just attacked America.

The passage of time has rendered 9/11 into a more familiar topic in TV fiction, and the results aren’t always encouraging. The horror of that day might get stapled awkwardly into some character’s backstory, like on A Million Little Things or The Village. A rising generation might offer its own perspective: The Twin Towers appear in the pilot for HBO’s Euphoria, setting a tone for visual extremity.

“Strawberries” is both more realistic and more brazenly surreal. The juxtaposition of Ramy’s story with the larger international tale crisscrosses the confessional-personal with the twisty-political. Ramy’s friends start to suspect he’s lying to them — about his family’s role in the attacks, and about his masturbatory prowess. Ramy is the first sitcom to take an expansive look at Muslim American life, and so many of its best episodes shine with the sheer blissful energy of breaking new ground. “Strawberries” is no exception. Young Ramy’s reaction to the attacks is hyper-specific, and feels autobiographical in the most seeking way. In a fearless final twist, Ramy goes to sleep and dreams of Osama Bin Laden (Christopher Tramantana), and their conversation combines out-there weird comedy with fearful terror.

Youssef’s work on “Strawberries” surely deserves Emmy nominations for the Comedy Writing and Comedy Directing categories. And voters should pay close attention to his sweetly subtle performance, which gets richer as the season deepens Ramy’s moral perplexity. Youssef’s star is on the rise. An HBO comedy special, Feelings, arrives June 29, and the delightfully unexpected finale of Ramy implies an unusual path forward for this series. It’s a long time till season 2, though, so seeing him at the Emmys on Sept. 22 would be a thrill.

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