During the stay-at-home days of the pandemic, comedians were truly keeping us sane by dropping their comedy specials and original shows on streaming platforms to give us respites from reality. And it was also like a smorgasbord of discovery for lesser known comedians finally getting the kind of attention the comedy circuit can’t provide. One of my “finds” was comedian Mohammed “Mo” Amer via his two Netflix specials, Mo Amer: The Vagabond (2018) and especially Mo Amer: Mohammed in Texas (2021). A Palestinian immigrant who came to the U.S.—specifically Houston, Texas—at age nine with his mother and two siblings, Amer talks about the necessity of figuring out how to assimilate into the Latino and Black cultures of his new neighborhood, and then navigating the realities of being Arab and Muslim in a state like Texas, and the horrific limbo of being an asylum applicant for two decades before being allowed to naturalize. Both specials frame how whip-smart, resourceful, and respectful of Mo is of religion and cultures, while poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of how he was raised and the flaws of his adopted country.
Having first made an acting name for himself playing Mo the diner owner in Ramy Youssef’s critically acclaimed Hulu series, Ramy, the two have now collaborated to tell Amer’s story in narrative form with the Netflix series, Mo. Shot in single camera format throughout Houston, the show immerses us in the semi-autobiographical portrayal of Amer’s life before comedy made him a star. Amer shares basically the same real-life origin story of his series protagonist, Mo Najjar. A refugee from Palestine by way of Kuwait during the Gulf War, he escaped the Iraqi soldiers with his mother, sister, and brother, while his father stayed behind and was tortured by the regime and then passed away not long after he was able to reconnect with his family in Texas. Now 30, Najjar can’t pursue a proper career because he has no official papers as their asylum case has been bouncing around the courts for two decades, so he side-hustles with under-the-table gigs and by selling knock-offs from his car trunk. He still lives with his mother (Farah Bsieso) and brother, Sameer (Omar Elba), and has a prickly relationship with sister Nadia (Cherien Dabis), who has married a nice Caucasian in nearby Galveston. Najjar also is in love with his entrepreneur girlfriend, Maria (Teresa Ruiz), who has scrimped and toiled to open her own successful garage. But she’s a Catholic Latina, and technically that’s a no-no for his devout Muslim mother, so the relationship is idling in limbo.
Over the course of the eight-episode first season, we follow along as Najjar navigates his chaotic day-to-day life in Houston: checking in with an eclectic group of diverse and loyal friends, trying to protect and provide for his mother and brother, spending quality time with Maria, and all the while rolling with the continuous setbacks of life including their tenuous asylum status and his revolving door of jobs, like DJing at a strip club. But getting randomly shot at a grocery store in the pilot is what incites Najjar’s primary season-long trauma. Without health insurance, he refuses going to the hospital to get treatment for his graze wound. Instead, he gets stitched up by his tattoo artist friend. For the pain, he’s given liquid codeine—called lean on the streets—and falls into a dependence that he hides despite getting increasingly worse.
With its slice-of-life, vérité style that’s rooted in the sights and sounds of Mo’s actual Houston community, the series deftly stitches together the varied patchwork of what his American existence looks like. Despite being the youngest of the siblings, Najjar has taken to heart his father’s edict to take care of them, and Amer is able to portray the weight of how that responsibility has seeped into every pore of his character because he’s lived the same life. The codeine addiction in the show is clearly one of the first crutches Najjar has had in two decades of trying to be everything everyone needs him to be, despite being kneecapped by an immigration system that doesn’t allow him to live up to his full potential. Even with his positive outside countenance, Amer makes sure we feel the ripple of failure that simmers under Najjar’s skin. As they say, inside every comedian is a sad clown, and Amer taps into that with such authenticity by revealing his unique and personal story so poignantly over the course of the show.
The series is also a window into the world of a Muslim immigrant living amongst the casual ignorance of our country’s populace. We have never made it easy on those who come to the States for a better life, and that’s the truthful, dark underbelly present in any immigrant story. But Amer is also to be commended for how he portrays the casual racism, or just plain cluelessness he’s surely had to weather every day of his existence in Houston and the U.S. He gives the audience his ground-eye view of what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and lets those scenarios be the source for a lot of potent comedy in the series. He’s not angry, but he also doesn’t let it slide, and watching it happen in such organic ways is a powerful path to take in providing white watchers in particular some self-awareness. Plus, he’s not precious in highlighting the hypocrisy of how ignorance is dished out across all cultures from his fellow Muslims to his Brown and Black brothers. He can’t marry Maria because of it, and facing those painful barriers full on in core stories is another strength of the show.
And on the other hand, like he does in his stand-up, Amer also shines a light on integral facets to his culture, be it always leaving your shoes at the front door or carrying his own fresh pressed olive oil with him everywhere. You find truth in the mundane, and as a series Mo is a bountiful and fascinating landscape in which to spend time and learn. Amer and Youssef, through their everyday portrayals of Muslim life here in America, continue to normalize their existence for Westerners who simply don’t know, and for Muslims who do know and now get to see themselves in contemporary storytelling.
Mo is also just a fun watch. Amer as Najjar is charming and entirely at ease on camera. He’s incredibly natural leading the series, and that’s likely because he’s lived some aspect of everything that fills the eight episodes. From the ridiculousness of him selling a cowboy trunk Crocs to working on an olive farm with a grizzled Southern farmer, everything feels lived-in and real. Even when the scenarios get their most preposterous in the season finale, Amer still lands it and his discomfort makes him all the more rootable. And everyone in the supporting cast is great, which makes the show click like a series that’s already seasons deep. Hopefully, Mo will only bust the door open even wider for Amer and the series’ talented circle of performers and writers.
Mo debuts August 24 on Netflix
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official Story of Marvel Studios released in late 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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