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Posts Tagged ‘“Normal People”’

Hiam Abbass, Ramy Youssef, Amr Waked

Like most boomers, I grew up on half-hour TV dramas. They once roamed the airwaves like herds of bison.

Maybe back then the entertainment industry didn’t think the fledgling television public had sufficient attention spans to endure a full hour of heavy dramatic lifting. Perhaps the studios were still trying to find the right balance between production costs and on-air quality, and a half-hour show minimized risk.

Whatever.  My generation came of age watching Westerns in which characters were introduced, a situation established and resolved (usually through gunplay) in a terse 25 minutes. (Plus five minutes for commercials.)

Not just Westerns.  Legal dramas and crime shows as well.

By the early ’60s the half-hour drama had given way to 60-minute productions which provided creators a chance to stretch a bit, dabble in nuance without the need to get in and out in record time.

Which is why I was surprised to discover that two of my new favorites — the Hulu series “Ramy” and “Normal People” — are half-hour dramas.

Yeah, yeah, technically “Ramy” is a comedy — this year its creator and star, Ramy Youssef, won the Golden Globe for best actor TV musical or comedy   — but as will soon be explained, the new second season of “Ramy” is essentially dramatic.

And as for “Ordinary Humans,” you don’t get much more intense than this tale of two Irish kids whose sexual/romantic relationship is followed over several years.

Okay, first “Ramy.”

Youssef stars (basically he’s playing  himself, or at least the self he presents in his standup routines) as Ramy, twenty something son of Egyptian immigrants who wants to be a good Muslim but also wants to be a normal American millennial.  He manages to avoid alcohol, but sex is his Achilles heel…he loves the ladies and whacking off to porn.

Season One sets up Ramy’s world and its inhabitants. His father Farouk (Amr Waked) is some kind of white-collar drone; mom Maysa (the sublime Hiam Abbass) is a homemaker and busybody with endless advice for Ramy (get a job, marry a nice Muslim girl) and his rebellious but still virginal sister Dena (May Calamawy).

Ramy’s running buddies are Mo ,(Mohammed Amer), who operates a diner and is always encouraging Ramy’s libidinous behavior (married, Mo lives vicariously through his friend), and the physician Ahmed (Dave Merheje), a nerd forever attempting to steer his pal along paths of righteousness.  Basically Ahmed and Mo are a good angel and a bad angel, each perched on one of Ramy’s shoulders and delivering hilariously contradictory advice.

A third pal is Steve (Youssef’s real-life best friend Steve Way), who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair from which he hurls world-class insults.

Another important character — and one who generates huge laughs in Season One — is Uncle Naseem (Laoth Nakli), who is also Ramy’s boss at a Manhattan jewelry store (the family lives in New Jersey). Broad, hairy, proudly chauvinistic and fiercely opinionated, Nasseem is an Arab version of a redneck who apparently agrees with Trump on everything except Muslim policy. Archie Bunker seems benign by comparison.

The debut season finds Ramy in various romantic entanglements (including an affair with a Jewish girl), but huge chunks of the season are devoted to exploring his world. This includes the daily schedule of Muslim prayer (Ramy is less than diligent), dietary and cleanliness laws (Ramy is reluctant to pray if he has recently farted) and prejudices within the Muslim community (Arabs aren’t so sure about their black American brethren).

In Season Two, which just debuted, things get considerably darker.

For starters, Ramy often takes a back seat as entire episodes are devoted to one character.  Maysa has been augmenting the family income as a Lyft driver; when she is suspended over a bad customer comment, she is sure the complainer is a trans woman, a recent fare.  She boneheadedly (but without malice) begins stalking the rider in an attempt to set things right.

Sister Dena, who at one point almost gives it up to a charming young man she meets on campus, finds herself in a deep depression when her glorious head of hair (no wraps for this girl) starts falling out in clumps.

Most of all there’s the episode devoted to the Uncle Naseem, whose bullish exterior hides a heart-breaking inner life.

These segments are essentially dramatic…there may be a chuckle or two, but they’re aiming at targets bigger than laughs.

The season is anchored by the great Mahershala Ali as Ramy’s new spiritual leader, a Sufi who cuts through all the chatter in Ramy’s head with his deep faith and psychological awareness.  This leads to Ramy’s romance with the Sheik’s daughter; the season ends with a betrayal by Ramy that makes us wonder if he’s really the nice goof we’ve always thought or simply too dense and selfish to warrant our affection.

Throughout the 30-minute format provides enough time to get the story told without lollygagging…”Ramy” will jump from one scene to the next almost before you can get the laugh out. Yet it rarely seems hurried.
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