The eponymous Mo (played by Mohammed Amer) in Netflix’s new comedy series is a Palestinian American Muslim man who grew up in Kuwait. Until, that is, the Gulf war sent his family to live undocumented in Houston, Texas, where they wait for their asylum claim to be heard – 22 years and counting. His aunties have to be coached through every FaceTime session (“Hold the phone further away”) and his mother keeps the price tags on all the lamps she buys for her collection “so people know what a bargain I’ve got.” Some things are universal.
The programme entwines the specific and the universal to enrich both sides of his story. It was created by Amer and fellow comedian Ramy Youssef, who worked together on Ramy – a comedy-drama about life as a first-generation Egyptian American Muslim living in New Jersey.
It produces a detailed, gorgeously textured, warm and moving story of one man’s life, bringing us closer to understanding a little bit more of everyone’s. It’s a story told via a gallimaufry of languages, cultures and creeds (including those of the native, fiddle-playing Texan olive farmers he spends time working for), united by the hustle and by humour. It is very, very funny.
Amer, well known as a standup in the US, who has two Netflix comedy specials under his belt (Mo Amer: The Vagabond and Mohammed in Texas) – and, as one third of the comedy trio Allah Made Me Funny – is a mesmerising presence. His Mo is an ebullient, seemingly indefatigable individual, a natural-born salesman whose charm and skill at making the most of every passing opportunity blunts the edge of what could be the much keener suffering caused by being forced to operate at life’s margins.
When he is fired from his job at an electronics store – the manager is sorry, but he’s had word that a government immigration raid is likely and cannot afford to be found with Mo working there – he moves back to selling knock-off gear from his car while he moves through a variety of other supplementary jobs.
A DJ-ing stint at a strip club (“Our first Arab would be a historic hire for us!” says the boss) ends in him being sacked for insisting a customer not smoke inside. His boss doesn’t know that he is reacting to the recent discovery that his father, Mustafa (Mohammad Hindi), was tortured – including with lit cigarettes – after they left him in Kuwait, and probably wouldn’t care if he did.
Precarity is a way of life and the problems thrown up by not yet being an American citizen are everywhere. When he is grazed by a bullet in a supermarket shooting (his mother, Yusra – Farah Bsieso – is more upset when she sees his secret tattoo than she is by the wound she is disinfecting below it), he cannot go to hospital. His unofficial treatment leads him to become addicted – quietly, functionally, for this is a world of relentless, incremental pressures and consequences, with only the occasional drama or blow-up, like real life – to “lean” (a mixture of codeine, cough syrup and soda, and a relatively cheap and accessible high).
Mo lives on his wits and nerves and the emotional refuge provided by family and – especially, perhaps – friends, including Nick (Tobe Nwigwe) and Mo’s Mexican Catholic girlfriend Maria (Teresa Ruiz). Maria owns a successful garage but is struggling to qualify for a loan to expand because her alcoholic father maxed out cards in her name and ruined her credit.
Later in the series, there is an encounter with a college friend who has married into wealth that does an exquisitely painful job of illuminating both the casual and the studied cruelties inflicted by the haves upon the have-nots even when they know them as people instead of an undifferentiated mass.
Mo covers a lot of ground, making the political personal, vivid and wholly involving. Amer is a bewitching – I thought long and hard about that word and it’s the right one – performer, who keeps tight and grounded what could sprawl. If he occasionally sucks up a little too much of the oxygen at others’ expense, it’s a price worth paying – especially if it gets corrected in what hopefully will be a second series.
He’s at the centre of a strong cast filled with actors who are well known in Arab-language media and rising Arab American stars who are all as able as he is when it comes to negotiating the deeper, darker emotional, cultural and political waters the show ventures into.
Its compelling warmth, however, never leaves it. It is impossible not to become instantly invested in Mo’s life and that of the rest of his family, to feel the petty humiliations inflicted on his brother Sameer at work, even if Sameer himself (who, it is suggested, is autistic) seems not to.
You will want to put a fist through the screen at several points on fiercely loving and frustrated Maria’s behalf. All while laughing with them. It’s a wonderful thing.