I was born in 1986 into the "unluckiest generation." As a millennial, I belong to a distinct group of offspring that faced some of the most difficult pathways to success: a collapsed economy, devastating unemployment, mountains of student loan debt. A 2013 report from The Atlantic described my generational cohort—those born between the early 1980s and mid-to-late 1990s—as being "stranded in the worst economy in 80 years." It's true, too. The Great Recession forced us into a state of financial and professional paralysis. As a result, Derek Thompson wrote, we were "scorned as perma-children, forever postponing adulthood, or labeled with that most un-American of character flaws: helplessness."
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The circumstances were mostly out of our hands. All of it had been caused by the self-absorption and greed of previous generations—the Boomers, mostly—yet millennials were the ones confronted with its most crippling consequences. We were deemed slackers, headlines cast us as convenient scapegoats, but the reality of our situation was much more tangled. We'd been dealt a bad hand. We simply needed time to figure out what was next, and what was best for us.
In the last decade, that particular brand of existential precariousness has infused itself into just about every TV show that has attempted, in some part, to give expression to millennials. On Girls, Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath declared: "I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice of a generation." With HBO's Insecure and Comedy Central's Broad City, Issa, Abby, and Ilana, respectively shipwrecked by relationship failure and career doubt, embarked on journeys of genuine belonging. Beset by personal insufficiency on Master of None, one of Netflix's early comedy triumphs, Dev flew to Italy with the hope that he'd luck upon something, or someone, that would steer him in the right direction. They didn't always convey profound insight into young adulthood, but the interpretations were dynamic and challenging all the same. Here was the millennial: underemployed, entirely misunderstood, a bit selfish, often lost and deterred, but curious about life.
From the outset of Ramy, Hulu's newest half-hour comedy about a first-gen Egyptian-American in North New Jersey, its millennial disposition is apparent. Played by 28-year-old comedian Ramy Youssef, its eponymous lead is locked in a state of moral unsteadiness much like the Devs and Hannahs before him. Yet, his perspective on millennial life couldn't have come from any of them. Youseff created, writes for, and serves as an executive producer for the show, and across its 10-episode first season you'll hear his Ramy profess routine monologues on similar themes: "I'm just figuring it out" or "I wanna figure out my calling." But the situations in which he says them would never happen on Girls. After Snack Swipe, the tech start-up he works for, goes under, his parents and friends suggest he take a job with his uncle, a misogynist jeweler in New York's Diamond District. "I don't want to just sell stuff to people," Ramy tells them. He wants to find a career he's passionate about. "Passion is a made up idea," his dad hisses. "It's for white people."
Ramy isn't revolutionary TV, but it has something important to say. Where it stands apart from its contemporaries is its seemingly seamless integration of Muslim faith—its breadth of perspective, Youssef's commentary on its sometimes regressive traditions. It's the kind of representation rarely given voice but one viewers need more of.
Religiously speaking, Ramy's family is conservative: everything and everyone has its place. Still, there's a generational gap he can't seem to make sense of. He's constantly at odds. "The problem is, I just don't know what kind of Muslim I am. I wanna pray," he says, but, "I wanna go to the party." For Ramy, persecution is not an external fight, not always; there's an inner battle being waged too. (In an interview, Youssef described the show as "an interrogation of personal guilt, personal responsibility.") Is it possible for Ramy to understand and accept both selves? Colored this way, the show is the smartest and most ferociously comic accounting of millennial anxiety I've watched all year.
Ramy's density of perspective proves an indispensable antidote to the toxin of stereotype.
Youssef's series emphasizes sprawl. It's a neat trick on his part, too, because Ramy doesn't, physically at least, go far beyond the environs of North Jersey and New York City (two season-ending episodes drop viewers in Egypt). On the show, religion and desire—how they can complement each other, but also how they butt up against one another—take many forms. There's a lavish amount of territory to cover, and Youssef does it with shrewd instincts and sharp observation that feels particularly alive. The show's got punch.
When Ramy goes on his first date with a Muslim girl, they trade stories of their outsiderness from an insider's stance. "I know it was terrible, but the day the Muslim ban happened I had a really good day," he tells Nuri. "The weather was great; I killed it at this meeting; I found a Metro card that had $120 dollars on it. It was weird because then I'm watching the news and this guy on TV is like, 'This is a terrible day for all Muslims,' and I'm like, Well, not all Muslims."
Elsewhere, the show's density of perspective proves an indispensable antidote to the toxin of stereotype. When a wave of Islamophobia hits the local restaurant owned by Ramy's friend Mo (a fantastic Mohammed Amer) he rejoices: "This 'ISIS fags' shit couldn't come at a better time—Ramadan and hate crime? My god, I couldn't pay for that kind of publicity."
In one flashback of surreality (episode 4, "Strawberries"), pre-teen Ramy's sexual awakening comes just as 9/11 happens. He's trying to masturbate for the first time but can't and the threat of social exile forces him to lie to his friends (all of them allege to have learned how). Compounded with the aftermath of the attacks, and just as he begins to see hallucinations of Osama bin Laden all over town, Ramy falls prey to the wilderness of middle school. As evidence of his American citizenship, his friends put forward a demand. "Jerk off on this leaf," one says. "Show us you're not a terrorist." The moment renders as one of the show's most staggering exchanges, and one of its saddest. It is also one of the truest—emblematic of the breed of illogical reason that lodged itself into the American consciousness in the wake of the disaster (and has mostly remained there). All of a sudden, simple rationale was in short supply.
Watching Ramy I couldn't help but wonder why it is that the most important and essential voices in this moment of political and social fracture are the ones so frequently silenced, the ones quieted in our most sacred public arenas (just look to what is happening with Rep. Ilhan Omar). The variance of perspective only seems to embolden one of Prestige TV's original missions: to connect us, to show that perhaps our differences are what make us whole and one.
Millennial TV is finally getting more of the voices it needs. For its part, Hulu is proving to be a capable incubator of the half-hour comedy; after Casual was preemptively axed last year, the underdog streaming service has found a pulse in Youssef's series as well as in Shrill , the Aidy Bryant sitcom about a young, fat journalist who's faced with issues of self-worth. What's more, Netflix's Special—about a gay twentysomething with cerebral palsy who works at a news and culture website called Eggwoke—lends flavor to the millennial struggle with fresh eyes. The shows are relatable in their pragmatism and their unsteadiness. Ramy may at times feel helpless, lost, or uncertain about what to do next. But that's ok. It feels like the real thing.
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