“Strawberries,” the standout fourth installment of Ramy, is a flashback to the namesake protagonist’s middle school years. At first, the story plays out like a textbook example of what my colleague Kate Knibbs has deemed the “puberty comedy,” with an adolescent Ramy, played by Elisha Henig, turning to a ribald message board for advice on how to masturbate. But Ramy’s coming-of-age tale comes with an extra dimension, one that deepens its capacity for tragedy and, strangely, comedy alike: Midway through its 27 minutes, the script reveals Ramy’s personal angst is playing out against the backdrop of 9/11.
The episode, which was both written and directed by Ramy’s creator and star Ramy Youssef, works so well because it’s about neither the still-looming shadow of 9/11 nor more quotidian struggles like peer pressure. It’s about both, since for an Egyptian American kid growing up Muslim in North Jersey during the early aughts, the two are bound up in each other. Ramy’s twerpy friends suspect he’s a terrorist in part because, and for the same reasons as, they suspect he’s not taking part in “normal” rituals like compulsively jerking off. He’s different, and the herd mentality of the early teenage brain seizes on nothing if not difference. That sense of being apart, of being beyond the comprehension of those outside his community, continues to haunt Ramy in the present day.
Despite the genuine novelty of its representation in the context of American television, Ramy fits into a recognizable template. Like Seinfeld before it, Ramy is named after and led by a performer who pulls inspiration from his own life. Like Louie, Ramy augments the model with highbrow touches: bisexual lighting, moments of surrealism, naturalistic staging. Ramy is produced by the television department of the widely admired film studio A24; its writers’ room includes Sundance darling Minhal Baig and Transparent alumna Bridget Bedard. There’s no shortage of easy comparisons across a television landscape that’s found individual perspectives a worthwhile—and replicable—investment. Ramy even shares both its A24 affiliation and cocreator Ari Katcher with NBC’s erstwhile The Carmichael Show.
Yet Ramy also belongs to a smaller, though growing, subset of auteur comedies. Hulu has never reached either the literal or conversational volume of its flashier competitor Netflix. Thanks to its institutional affiliation with the broadcast networks—Hulu is partly owned by NBC parent company Comcast as well as the post-merger alliance of Disney and Fox, which just claimed the majority of AT&T’s stake—the company has a much less adversarial relationship toward mainstream Hollywood than its rival. But while its present may be relatively discreet and its future under Disney control may be uncertain, Hulu has quietly carved out a solid base within entertainment’s still-raging streaming wars. It boasts formidable archives of acquired shows, including no less a stalwart than 30 Rock. It became the first nonlinear network to earn an Emmy Award for Outstanding Series in either Drama or Comedy, for the debut season of The Handmaid’s Tale. (Amazon would catch up the next year with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) And now, its comedy offerings seem to be catching up to its dramas.
Numerically, Hulu’s most significant debut this year is The Act, the true-crime anthology CEO Randy Freer recently announced drove more new subscriptions in its first month than any previous series to date. Critically, however, Hulu has also earned plaudits for a string of voice-driven comedies—and, like HBO before it, buzz can matter as much to fee-based services like Hulu as raw viewership. Back in February, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine’s Pen15, a cringe-inducing cavalcade of tweenage indignities, became a surprise word-of-mouth sensation. Fans seized on the precision of Pen15’s nostalgia, the commitment of Erskine and Konkle’s slapstick, and the ingenuity of its hook: Rather than cast child actors as their surrogates, the two women play aged-down versions of themselves opposite actual middle schoolers, bowl cuts and all. Though very different shows, Ramy and Pen15 share a streaming platform, an autobiographical approach, and for one episode, at least, a setting—“Strawberries” almost reads like an alternate-universe episode of Pen15, with different characters but similar, if weightier, themes.
With eerily close analogs like Big Mouth and Sex Education elsewhere on TV, Pen15 wasn’t automatically paired with its distributor’s follow-up. Last month, the six-episode Shrill matched the star power of Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant with the ideas and experiences of writer Lindy West, from whose memoir of the same title Shrill was adapted. Like Pen15 before and Ramy after it, Shrill bears down on a specific aspect of its creators’ personal histories, turning them into stand-ins for much broader, if underexamined, realities. What Pen15 is to middle school sexuality and Ramy to millennial Muslim identity, Shrill is to having a body America’s thin-worshipping, fatphobic culture ignores at best and dehumanizes at worst. Bryant’s Annie Easton, a staffer at a Portland-based alt weekly, embarks on an unlearning process undergone by millions, if rarely centered in a TV show.
Ramy is similarly striking in its casual, lived-in detail: A female character offhandedly asks whether a Postmates driver is male or female, then dons her scarf accordingly; a group of construction workers conduct their predawn prayers in a diner parking lot. Large swaths of dialogue take place in Arabic. But over 10 episodes, Ramy establishes itself as the most assured and successful entry in Hulu’s recent winning streak. The show has no obvious inciting incident or driving narrative force. The storytelling instead opts for shading over momentum, taking time to spotlight Ramy’s younger sister Dena (May Calamawy), with whom he lives at home, or his childhood friend Steve (Steve Way), with muscular dystrophy. Ramy himself is an intentionally frustrating protagonist with an inconsistent sense of self—he turns down wine one moment and pops weed gummies the next, declining casual sex in one scene only to hook up with a married woman later in the same episode. But Ramy’s identity crisis also proves the ideal means to explore his contradiction-laden world, which isn’t divided in two, Hannah Montana–style so much as muddled together in a confusing jumble.
Unlike so many of his predecessors, the show version of Youssef isn’t an aspiring comedian or writer, a tweak that relieves the show of some of the show business narcissism that can afflict its genre. He’s just a noncommittal slacker who slides from loosely defined start-up job to helping out his diamond-merchant uncle, one example of the slippery boundaries between Ramy’s lives as an Arab kid from the suburbs and a 20-something in New York. Rather than a binary between his immigrant parents and assimilated peers, Ramy’s existence contains multitudes—the bro-y Muslim friends who take him to parties and try to set him up with their cousins; the family member who’s a misogynist bigot but also does the right thing when called upon. Texture takes primacy over stakes, with bit players, many of them Ramy’s momentary love interests, getting a large amount of nuance in a short amount of time.
Both Pen15 and Shrill show a tremendous amount of promise, though like their heroines, each show still feels in the process of finding their voice. (Shrill was recently renewed for an eight-episode second season.) Ramy is confident right out the gate. Youssef and his collaborators have delivered a funny, bittersweet survey of a particular kind of American experience; meanwhile, Hulu has successfully established itself as a home for the same. Its targeted strategy may not be as ostentatious as Netflix’s maximalism, or Amazon’s all-out awards campaigns. But slow and steady can still win the race.