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'Ramy' wades into murky waters in Season 3, but the comedy is clear as ever

Ramy Youssef plays a millennial son of an immigrant Muslim family in New Jersey in <em>Ramy</em>.
Jon Pack
Ramy Youssef plays a millennial son of an immigrant Muslim family in New Jersey in Ramy.

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 (permissible for Muslims) or haram (not permissible). 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. Ramy's Egyptian father Farouk (Amr Waked) and Palestinian mother Maysa (Hiam Abbas) favor Ramy over his rebellious sister Dena (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. 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've 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 jampacked Season 3, Ramy turns his attention away from both God and sex, and — to the horror of his parents — gets into business with Israelis. Supermodel Bella Hadid joins the cast, and 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.

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 her family's conservative values; and to his bullying Uncle Naseem (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 clichés 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 us 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 Sept. 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, who has Muscular Dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. (He's played by comedian Steve Way, who also 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, with Ramy growing increasingly unlikable and his family appearing 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.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.