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Netflix’s ‘Mo’ Finds the Funny in Refugee Families

On "Mo," seeking asylum is just another domestic situation — and it's absolutely a comedy.

An adult man in a backwards baseball cap and woman in a pink printed shirt smile as they play arcade games; still from "Mo"

Mo Amer and Teresa Ruiz in “Mo.”

REBECCA BRENNEMAN/NETFLIX

Editor’s note: This article contains mild spoilers for “Mo.”

There’s nothing sexier than confidence — especially in a freshman TV show. Now streaming on Netflix, Ramy Youssef and Mo Amer’s “Mo” is as self-assured and richly imagined as Youssef’s Hulu series “Ramy” — only this is an even more complex and multifaceted portrayal of minority life. Unlike “Ramy” or “Ms. Marvel,” which also center on nonwhite protagonists and immigrant families, Mo’s family knows each day that it could be their last in the country.

Not the stuff of comedy? Why not? “Mo” dares to acknowledge what many people know already: Seeking asylum can be just another domestic situation.

Amer is Mo, a Palestinian refugee living in Houston who must balance work, faith, family life, and his pending asylum case. Based on Amer’s own experience, Mo’s refugee status informs every aspect of his life. This isn’t the stuff of Very Special Episodes or even charged social and political conversations. For Mo, seeking asylum is a kind of normal: He lives and works and is as American as anyone, only due to circumstances beyond his control he doesn’t have a passport, can’t leave the States, and struggles to find employment. Sometimes it’s played for laughs, but never for self pity.

A mother and her two adult sons sit on their living room sofa in front of a large, open cardboard box; still from "Mo."

“Mo”

REBECCA BRENNEMAN/NETFLIX

For a show that must encapsulate multiple cultures, “Mo” is a marvel of economy. Mo works at a cell phone store where he deftly switches between English, Spanish, and Arabic as he talks to a customer, his colleague, and his boss. He didn’t always speak Spanish but grew up in a large Latin community, an influence that presents most strongly with his girlfriend Maria (Teresa Ruiz). A single whip-smart bedroom scene introduces Maria, establishes Mo’s mother’s skepticism about his Catholic girlfriend, Mo and Maria’s relationships to their faiths, their understanding of each other’s values, and their love for one another. The couple speak in Spanish and he calls her “habibi,” but their conflicts arise in arenas deeper than coming from different worlds.

Mo’s Palestinian family gained refugee status because his late father was tortured — something he doesn’t know when the show begins. Mo has never been to Palestine; he was born in Kuwait during the Gulf War. Mo’s older brother Sameer (Omar Elba) is probably on the spectrum, which mostly manifests when he voices uncomfortable truths in tense social situations but also leads to moments of true tenderness between the siblings. When they reunite with sister Nadia (Cherien Dabis) to pray at their father’s grave, it’s one of the most stirring yet grounded scenes of television this year.

Somehow, “Mo” manages to be a family comedy, a romance, and occasionally a crime drama without compromising or switching tone. Surely it would be easier to to give Mo punchlines in a stressful scenarios, but Amer’s above that: He’s a funny man who doesn’t have to make light of heavier scenes. He moves from laughing with Maria and best friend Nick (Toby Nwigwe) to weeping in confession after nervously declaring, “I love Jesus! Jesus was Palestinian.”

When Mo and Nick find themselves in a sticky situation, Nick suggests they start yelling in foreign languages to discombobulate their opponents. “When has screaming in Arabic calmed anybody down?” Mo growls. It’s a “Mo” signature: a moment of levity and a statement of fact.

“Mo” dropped a week ago, so a Season 2 order remains to be seen. At this writing, the Netflix homepage heavily promotes Amer’s 2021 stand-up special, “Mohammed in Texas;” we’ll take that as a good sign. For now, “Mo” is a shining reminder of the wealth of shows now on-air and still to come thanks to widening doors in comedy, television, and this country — how a story about a refugee family can be unabashedly American.

“Of course, Houston is home,” Mo says fondly in one episode. “I have another home I can’t go to yet.”

“Mo” is now streaming on Netflix.

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