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The Divine Combination of ‘Ramy’ and Mahershala Ali

Season 2 of Ramy Youssef’s Hulu dramedy is just as life-affirming, poignant, and funny as the first—only now it features one of the best actors on the planet

Hulu/Ringer illustration

The second season of Ramy, the namesake Ramy Youssef dramedy from Hulu, tells a textbook story of the post-antihero age; Ramy’s peers may be a conscious reaction against their aughts-era influences, but they’ve coalesced into a genre of their own. From its debut last year, Ramy has contained visible traces of Donald Glover’s Atlanta: in substance, a seeming star-vehicle that widens into an ensemble, anchored by an unflattering self-portrait; in style, a sitcom that applies high-art flourishes like surrealism to a marginalized community whose quirks are rarely even depicted, let alone satirized.

Ramy’s latest volume retains an almost anthological structure, with episodes focused on the inner lives of the title character’s mother, father, uncle, and sister. But its main, serialized arc adds new influences to its repertoire. Ramy remains the story of an Egyptian American Muslim from North Jersey trying to tease out family obligations and social pressures from his actual wants and needs. Now, like Barry or BoJack Horseman before it, the show has become the story of a fuck-up actively trying to be less fucked up—once the half-hearted coda to the antihero’s downward spiral, now the main event. And lest we think Ramy’s struggles are just about masculinity, his latest life raft is straight out of Fleabag: religion, or rather, the charismatic cleric who draws Ramy deeper into his faith.

Still, Ramy has one thing its many peers do not, a trump card to help it stand out from the crowd: two-time Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali, perfectly cast as a magnetic authority figure just waiting for a desperate searcher to latch on to his charisma. If your local luminary had that steady gaze and soothing baritone, you’d probably do the same.

In interviews, Youssef has recounted how he and his writers had already spent a month and a half outlining the season before Ali reached out as a fan. (Actually, Ali’s agent reached out for him after the actor gushed about Season 1.) At first, the plan was just to talk, not collaborate, but the Ramy brain trust was already planning to guide their protagonist toward a new guru in the final episodes of the season. Once Ali entered the picture, Youssef and his partners recognized the role had essentially been filled for them and reconfigured the story accordingly. One might even call it divine intervention.

Ali plays the Sheikh, a Sufi cleric who draws Ramy in with a more mystical and personal approach to Islam. (Ali converted to the religion in 2000.) In spiritual crisis after sleeping with his own cousin on a trip to Egypt, the latest in a string of disastrous relationships with women, Ramy first tries to unburden himself to his longtime imam, who more or less shuts down at the mere mention of masturbation. Ali’s Sheikh, by contrast, listens patiently through a full confession, and for that he earns Ramy’s undying loyalty—at least until he’s tested.

It’s obvious to anyone that Ramy isn’t prepared for actual change. His fervent devotion isn’t a step away from his dysfunctional love life; it’s a replacement for it, repeating a toxic cycle of infatuation without full understanding. And when Ramy starts spending time with the Sheikh’s daughter, Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo), that swap becomes dangerously literal.

Like many strong follow-ups, Ramy’s sophomore effort already feels familiar, even though we’ve spent only a few hours in its world. Ramy’s tight-knit friend group acts like a Greek chorus, calling out his dumb decisions even as they drag him to a premature bachelor party in Atlantic City. Routine detours into the extended Hassan family—in the grand tradition of autobiographical art, Youssef’s alter ego shares his first name but not his last—help counteract Ramy’s chronic selfishness. One especially strong half-hour, directed by The Bisexual’s Desiree Akhavan, follows Ramy’s Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli), a gym-bro bachelor whose sexuality is much more complicated than it first appears.

Still, Ali’s arrival brings something entirely new. The Sheikh fades into the background for much of the season’s middle stretch, but at the open and close, he’s practically a co-lead. The Sheikh has all the gravitas, stillness, and grace Ali brings to his most prominent roles, here in odd-couple contrast to Ramy’s frenetic self-doubt. Ali first rose to prominence as a TV actor on prestige dramas like House of Cards, but a great deal has changed since his stint as a villain on Luke Cage. His most recent small-screen role, in the third season of True Detective, was the kind now reserved for movie stars, placing Ali in the same tier as Matthew McConaughey. On Ramy, he’s still in visiting-dignitary mode, honoring the show with his presence just as the Sheikh honors Ramy by putting up with his bullshit.

Ramy’s status as one of the few stories about Muslims on TV incurs a crushing, even unfair burden of representation, one that has invited scrutiny into some of its choices—particularly around parts of the Muslim experience outside Youssef’s own. One-fifth of American Muslims are black, but prior to this season, Ramy’s core cast featured zero black people; and like many shows, Ramy sometimes struggles to show a character’s problems with women without channeling those very problems. Youssef is acutely aware of his blind spots: “We need a black Muslim show to really get that POV,” he wrote in a note posted to his Instagram. “We need a show around a Muslim woman, led by Muslim women.” Ramy’s universe is insular by design, though not always for the best.

Centering a black cleric and his smart, sardonic daughter, Ramy’s Sheikh plot feels like a conscious effort to evolve, though not an obtrusive one. Ramy doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is: a show about a very specific form of the American Muslim experience—geographically, generationally, demographically. Nor does the Sheikh feel like an insertion of diversity for diversity’s sake; Ali’s talents ensure as much. Most of the Sheikh’s story has more to do with his bearing than his background as Ramy repeatedly tests his patience. But when race does come up, it’s handled with sharp humor and care. When Ramy and Zainab introduce their families, it’s a festival of aggressions, both micro (Ramy’s mom says Zainab looks “like Beyoncé”) and macro (Naseem hurling ugly stereotypes). The Sheikh seems to turn the other cheek, until he jabs back with a crack about Arab-owned liquor stores. Just because people are targets of prejudice doesn’t mean they’re not prejudiced themselves.

Ali can’t help but dominate the screen, but his arc is nonetheless in service to that of Ramy’s namesake: trying to do right without knowing where he went wrong, falling on his face, and dragging everyone else down with him. Ramy runs headfirst into commitments he isn’t prepared to make, both religious and romantic. And when his sins finally snowball into something even the Sheikh can’t handle, something breaks. Ali is an actor all but synonymous with composure; he excels at quiet fury, emphasis on the quiet. Which makes it all the more terrifying when he starts screaming things like “FUCK YOU, RAMY. YOU LITTLE FUCKING BOY.” It’s not very clerical, but it is quite human.

Fandom-driven guest spots can be a risky proposition. (See: every celebrity cameo in the final seasons of Game of Thrones.) Even so, Ali blends into Ramy even as he bends the entire show around his center of gravity. In the process, he puts the entire audience in Ramy’s position, allowing us to fall under his spell. Unwilling to be honest about his own motivations, Ramy doesn’t understand why he finds himself so drawn to this obtuse, intense man—but Ramy sure does.