Movie review

Netflix’s Mo Keeps the Faith For Insightful Muslim-American Stories

Near the end of his 2021 special “Mohammed in Texas,” Palestinian-American comedian Mohammed Amer quips, “Houston is the city that raised me, and Netflix is the label that pays me.” It’s the kind of blunt, self-deprecating aside he likes to throw out via his addictive, inviting delivery—at turns humble and deeply anxious, his voice rising almost as if the stress of whatever point he’s making about Muslim-American life or the COVID-19 pandemic is liable to give him a heart attack. 

For lack of a better explanation, that’s the energy that suffuses his eponymous new show for Netflix, “Mo,” a bittersweet dramedy that understands its position within the pop culture landscape and its continuity among a vanishingly small number of television shows centering around Muslim and Arab voices. Its closest analog is, of course, Hulu’s “Ramy,” another show centering around the semi-autobiographical story of a successful Muslim-American comedian (Ramy Youssef)—fitting since Youssef co-created “Mo” with Amer, and A24 produced both shows.

But where “Ramy”’s good intentions have met with some amount of controversy—its depiction of Muslim women, the flattening of Ramy’s religious journey as a Muslim—“Mo” feels lighter on its feet and warmer towards its characters, even as its eight twenty-five minute episodes lean on contrivance to gin up some drama. It helps that Amer himself is an affable, likable screen presence, a big teddy bear of a guy who buoyantly bounces between Arab and American culture. 

It’s a juggling act Amer has managed his entire life, much of “Mo” being dawn directly from his experiences growing up in the diverse-but-difficult Houston suburb of Alief. The fictional Mo Najjar is a Palestinian refugee who fled to Kuwait with his strict mother Yusra (Farah Bseiso) and brother Sameer (Omar Elba), only to emigrate to America after the Gulf War hit, after which he and his family await the years-long business of securing asylum. His father Mustafa (Mohammad Hindi) died years before, an event that still haunts Mo, as we see in frequent flashbacks that begin each episode; midway through the season, we (and Mo) learn that was tortured for two years in Kuwait, a revelation that further exacerbates Mo’s guilt. 

Still, he smiles through the pain, even as his immigration status (and the gang-laden environs of Alief) set all manner of obstacles in front of him. Minutes into the first episode, he’s fired from a cell phone repair shop because of the boss’s fear of an ICE raid, forcing him to lean on his side hustle selling knockoff Yeezys and Versace handbags. Not long after that, a trip to the grocery store for cat food puts him in the crosshairs of two traumatic events. First, a bored sample lady introduces him to the existence of chocolate hummus. Then, a stray gunman shoots him in the arm.  

It’s only a graze, but Mo’s desire to avoid hospital bills takes him to a tattoo parlor, where the chop-shop doctor stitches him up and gives him lean (a potent mix of codeine and syrup; you might also clock it as sizzurp or purple drank) for the pain. It’s not long before he gets addicted, just one of many demons that pounce on him throughout the first season. 

But it’s a credit to the show’s creative team, from Amer down to series director Solvan “Slick” Naim (“It’s Bruno!”), that the show maintains an effective balance of ebullience and pathos. Even as Mo faces trials both figurative (his grief over his father’s absence) and quite literal (a late-season hearing to decide his family’s status once and for all), the jokes come fast and furious, mostly thanks to Amer’s slick, quick-witted delivery. It’s the way he diffuses his own misplaced anger and resentment, as evidenced by his growing frustration at the arcade games he plays with his Catholic girlfriend Maria (Teresa Ruiz) and childhood friend Nick (Tobe Nwigwe) one night at the Houston Funplex: “F**k Skee-ball; probably has racist origins.”

This isn’t to say “Mo” shies away from hard issues; far from it. Like “Ramy,” it’s committed to exploring the intricacies of Muslim-American life, furthered by the specific slice of multiculturalism that informed Amer’s life. Najjar, like Amer, speaks English, Arabic, and Spanish with equal fluency, flitting between all three worlds with a hustler’s confidence. Mo lacks Ramy’s various crises of faith; he’s a devout Muslim from childhood, though tolerant of other religions (even as he keeps telling his skeptical mother that Maria will convert once they get married). He’s proud to be Palestinian and reps his food and culture however he can; where some might carry hot sauce around, he keeps a vial of his mother’s handmade olive oil on hand at all times. 

While “Mo” focuses mostly on Amer and his journey, it also takes the intermittent detour to various members of his inner circle, and the results are diverting, if comparatively thin. We get glimpses of these characters’ interior wants and needs: Yusra’s desire to feel useful by making her legendary olive oil by hand, Sameer (who’s implicitly on the spectrum) questioning why his mother doesn’t pester him to get married like she does Mo, Maria’s struggle to escape crippling debt foisted on her by her father. All these moments get some interesting treatment in a sequence or two throughout the series, but they feel somewhat eclipsed in Amer’s orbit.

However, “Mo” stumbles in its intermittent swings towards melodrama that threaten to undercut the gentler, more nuanced work early in the season. Mo’s brushes with the criminal underworld are somewhat expected, given the specificity of Amer’s experiences growing up in Alief. But a late-season subplot wherein Amer ends up in the pocket of a menacing gangster named Dante (Rafael Castillo) feels like an unnecessary escalation of the show’s stakes—as if we needed a “Pineapple Express”-like thriller undertone when watching Mo struggle with a lifetime’s worth of traumas is compelling enough. 

Despite these minor bumps in the road, “Mo” remains an innately compelling show, due in no small part to that thrilling dissonance between Mo’s gregariousness and the deep wells of historical pain hidden underneath—one shared by so many of his countrymen, who’ve faced war and displacement and occupation and death. “We carry on!” Yusra tells a wearied Mo late in the season: “As Palestinians, that’s what we do.” It’s a highly personal story, drawn so specifically from Amer’s own unique life it feels silly to lay upon it the expectations of perfect Arab representation. Like the man himself, it stumbles and falls from time to time. But it always gets back up and tries again; it carries on. And with such a strong start under its belt, let’s hope that “Mo” gets a chance to do just that through a second season and beyond. 

Whole season screened for review.

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