'Mo' Review: Palestinian-American Comedy Led By 'Ramy's Mohammed Amer Finds Its Own Step – The Playlist

'Mo' Review: Palestinian-American Comedy Led By 'Ramy's Mohammed Amer Finds Its Own Step – The Playlist

The stakes are high for shows like “Mo,” Netflix’s new comedy series. For decades, TV and film in the West have followed mainstream political narratives, offering Muslims and Arabs of all faiths and none a narrow screen binary: you’re either a villain or a victim. In recent years, shows like A24’s “Ramy,” “Man Like Mobeen,” and “We Are Lady Parts” have been making great strides in changing that, offering much-maligned audiences the chance to see some of their own nuances reflected back at them (not to mention allowing often-typecast performers to play characters with more depth than Terrorist #7 or Woman with Headscarf). For every one of these shows, however, still more reductive, essentialist depictions of Muslims and Arabs arrive on our screens, deepening the need for more stories that reclaim ownership of narratives about these communities.
This early on in the tidal change, then, anything that tries to break with the long screen lineage of single-note, negative portrayals of Muslims and Arabs carries the weight of much expectation and hope on its shoulders, as all those years of these diverse communities being flattened into cartoonish stereotypes loom large overhead. The relative rarity of shows that attempt to break this mold in the TV landscape means they’re under disproportionate pressure and are at risk of being taken to stand for something much bigger than themselves. This is a conundrum Ramy Youssef, co-creator of both “Mo” and his own self-titled show, must know well. Since the latter’s first season aired in 2019, the show and its taboo-smashing plotlines have provoked intense debates and prompted defensive rejections from some Muslim viewers who feel disservice from its depictions.
“Mo,” which also revolves around an Arab-American Muslim man (played by co-creator Mohammed Amer, a co-star of Ramy Youssef’s in “Ramy”), seems to have learned lessons from its A24 sibling show. A Palestinian refugee who grew up in Kuwait before the Gulf War re-displaced his family to a Houston suburb — where his father passed away prematurely after surviving torture in Kuwait and where his family still await asylum — the titular Mo Najjar’s matrix of experiences is so specific that it asserts the show’s right to exist on its own terms. Based largely on its creator-star’s own life, “Mo” leans hard into the autobiographical subjectivity of its material. In doing so, it primes audiences to read it with a more fitting sense of proportion: this is Mo’s story, not necessarily anyone else’s.
Naturally, that specificity doesn’t preclude audience connection. The show speaks to shared experiences, and universal themes like trauma and resilience as Mo struggles to process his grief and juggle a quasi-paternal sense of family responsibility with trials at work and in love. A born hustler, he turns to selling knock-off designer merch from his trunk after he’s let go from his job because of the threat of an ICE raid, a fact he keeps secret from his mother Yusra (Farah Bsieso) and brother Sameer (Omar Elba). He charmingly faces this setback — and the many others — with all the buoyancy of a comedian (Amer himself has had two stand-up specials air on Netflix). Take, for example, the moment when, stranded across the border, Mo breezily undercuts the high stakes of his predicament by telling the armed people-smugglers who hold his fate in their hands to “stop fat-shaming” him. Although Islam is mostly invoked as a precious means of consolation in the show, Mo’s faith is also sometimes interwoven into its comedy, as in the moment when his Catholic girlfriend Maria (Teresa Ruiz) makes the sign of the cross on him and he “neutralizes” it with a reflexive “Astaghfirullah.” The jokes come thick and fast, ensuring that the show’s 25-or-so-minute-long episodes rarely stray from the register of an easy, bingeable watch, a la Netflix’s specialty.
“Mo” does pick up some of the weaknesses of that fast food format: short audience attention spans are taken as a given, and so melodramatic set-pieces and cliffhangers are contrived to form neat peaks of adrenaline in viewers’ brains and keep the autoplay function in good use. However, two elements work against that to provide the show with real texture and gravity, demanding more than passive consumption from viewers: the family’s Palestinian identity and the show’s treatment of the memory of Mo’s father, Mustafa. The series’ acute subjectivity and sincerity in these regards allow it to transcend its quickly-digested, soon-forgotten format and become something genuinely meaningful. Every scene about or featuring flashbacks of Mustafa (Mohammad Hindi) bears the unmistakable gravity of real memory and grief and every reference to Palestine, its occupation, and the Najjars’ fraught journey to Texas is delivered with aching weight behind it.
The mere fact that Palestinian identity plays such a central part in the show at all is momentous in and of itself; what’s more, it allows the series to recognize the inter-community connections forged by Mo and his family’s experiences. In places, the show angles its spotlight accordingly: season-ender “Vamos” devotes a small portion of its focus to the dangers and hardships refugees face at the Mexican-American border. For example, parallels are drawn elsewhere with the injustices committed against the Karankawa people of the show’s Texan setting. These are small moments, but they speak to the show’s self-awareness: it knows that, in Alief, Houston, Mo’s experiences and the identity that has informed them don’t isolate him from others — they connect him.
As may be expected from the singular focus of its title, “Mo” largely revolves around Amer’s character. However, some efforts are made to devote part of the limelight to the essential people in his life, including his Mexican-American girlfriend Maria, mother Yusra, and brother Sameer. Maria is depicted as possibly being on the autism spectrum. Results vary, however: while Bsieso and Elba’s performances are strong, some uneven writing means that their characters still feel shallow in places. One loaded moment in “Testimony,” the climax of the Najjars’ legal efforts to attain asylum, hints at their withheld potential: waiting their turn in the courthouse, Sameer questions why Yusra has never asked him if he wants to get married. The scene could kickstart a deeper exploration of their inner lives — thereby affording these characters complex material on a par with Mo’s — but the question is quickly resolved, and the show moves on. The material Ruiz is given means that her character feels still more distant: a sub-plot revolving around her troubled family backstory is cursorily dealt with, part of a broader pattern of treatment that means her character doesn’t feel as filled in as others.
Actors’ untapped potential aside, the series’ committed approach to casting is worth noting. Well-known faces in Arab-language media — including Palestinian actor Bsieso and “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” Bassem Youssef — feature alongside rising Arab-American stars like Palestinian-American actor-director Cherien Dabis (as Mo’s estranged sister Nadia) and Elba, an Egyptian-American actor. She once went by the stage name Alexander Black to avoid being typecast. Even some of the show’s history-making predecessors have sometimes dabbled in lazy Hollywood casting practices by recruiting generically “ethnic” actors to play Arabs, making its concerted efforts to fill its credits with players like Cynthia Yelle, Rana Haddad, Kamal Zaid, and Moayad Alnefaie all the more noteworthy. The show doesn’t neglect to recognize the other side of Mo’s hyphenated identity, either. Arab artists like Duraid Lahham and Elyanna rub shoulders on the soundtrack with Houston legends Paul Wall and DJ Screw, while Alief native and rapper Tobe Nwigwe plays Mo’s best friend Nick, and Bun B and Wall pop up in cameo roles in between shots of swangas, slabs, and giant presidents’ heads.
Sincerity like this helps to give “Mo” top-down emotional heft not usually present in shows of such a snackable format. Just as Netflix’s prematurely canceled “One Day at a Time” did, the series elevates a familiar set-up by filling itself with material that is, even just by virtue of its existence, quietly radical. At the same time, however, some of its shortcomings feel like the result of adhering too closely to the contrived conventions of its genre. There may be promise in this regard, though, since “Mo” has already proven itself confident enough to sidestep the pressures that loomed over it from the outset and find its own step. Its cliffhanger ending is clearly asking Netflix to stick with it. If the trigger-happy streamer does, maybe the show will discover conviction enough in its second season to do away with manufactured drama, thereby making space in its short runtime to treat all of its characters with the same thoughtful consideration it gives Mo. [B+]


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