'Mo' review: a landmark series filled with humour and authenticity

Comedian Mo Amer’s semi-autobiographical sitcom is a complex yet funny portrait of a Palestinian-American family

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It’s impossible not to like Mo.

Netflix’s latest show is, like its co-creator and star, Mo Amer, enamouring and effortlessly funny.

Amer’s debut show has been a long time coming. The Palestinian-American stand-up comedian has made a name for himself in the US and among the global Arab diaspora, with his Netflix specials Mo Amer: The Vagabond and Mo Amer: Mohammed in Texas, as well as being one-third of the comedy trio Allah Made Me Funny.

Amer’s comedy centres around commentary and observations on politics, social challenges, religion and growing up in America through the lens of personal stories, often including his family and Palestinian background.

From the very first episode of Mo, we are immersed in the personal, social and political complications of the central character Mo Najir’s life.

In the opening scene of the show inspired by events in Amer's own life, we meet Mo driving to work, cigarette in hand, listening to Sittin’ Sidewayz by Paul Wall and Big Pokey — the hip-hop culture of Houston, Texas, is a recurring theme.

Mo Amer stars as Mo, a Palestinian refugee in Houston, Texas, trying to provide for his family. Photo: Netflix © 2022

Mo arrives at the tech repair shop he works at, only to be fired by his boss, played by Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, who is worried his business will be the target of immigration authorities. Mo, as it turns out, is an undocumented Palestinian refugee.

In the show, after being forced to flee Palestine in the 1940s, Mo’s family were displaced once again in the 1990s during the Gulf War and left Kuwait for Houston, where they have waited for their asylum claim to be heard in court for 22 years.

Since his father's death, Mo has been the family's sole breadwinner and is determined to keep working, selling counterfeit products from the boot of his car.

Maria, Mo’s Mexican mechanic girlfriend (Teresa Ruiz) and his best friend Nick (Tobe Nwigwe) try to deter him from this illegal line of work, but Mo rebuffs their concerns.

“I gotta do what I gotta do until I have my own business, buy my own piece of land, and do things the right way.”

'Mo' follows the story of Mo Najir and his family, who are Palestinian refugees living in Houston, Texas. Photo: Netflix © 2022

Mo’s devoted mother Yusra (Farah Bsieso) constantly worries about him and isn’t thrilled about his relationship with Maria. She's starting to feel that her life has no real meaning and her identity only encompasses her role as a mother.

Meanwhile, his elder brother Sameer (Omar Elba) appears to be on the autism spectrum, navigating through his and his family’s problems with indifference, dedicating most of his attention to his cat, Crystal.

MO

Creators: Mohammed Amer, Ramy Youssef

Stars: Mohammed Amer, Teresa Ruiz, Omar Elba

Rating: 4/5

Later in the first episode, while buying cat food for Crystal, Mo is caught in a shooting and is grazed by a bullet on the arm. Uninsured and undocumented, he refuses to get into the ambulance or seek professional medical help.

Mo doesn’t exactly sound like the traditional premise for a comedy, but funnily enough, it’s hilarious.

“I’ve never been to Palestine. I don’t have citizenship there. I don’t have citizenship here. I’m like a refugee free agent.”

Mo’s comment, while having lunch with his girlfriend and best friend, encompasses not only the space that he and almost all the characters occupy, but also the way in which their stories are told.

Arabic, English and Spanish are spoken freely, over each other, to each other. Islamic and Catholic differences are referenced and discussed, woven into every conversation he has with his mother and also his girlfriend.

Heated political debates about Palestine break out in shisha cafes over games of backgammon. These social and political realities exist in the background, creating an authentic cultural fabric where intersectionality is not the focus but the reality itself.

The show is arresting, dark, poignant, heart-warming and incredibly funny.

From Mo’s quips around the misunderstandings surrounding his heritage — strangers confuse Palestine for a town in Houston, or even for Pakistan — to ironic situational humour between Mo and his brother, the fast-paced wit of the show constantly entertains and intrigues audiences without fatigue.

Amer co-created Mo with comedian Ramy Youssef, whose comedy-drama about life as an Egyptian-American Muslim in New Jersey, Ramy, won a Golden Globe. In Mo, Amer and Youssef strike a balance between humour and something much darker.

After all, the reality of being a Palestinian refugee is far from funny.

From providing a glimpse into the chaotic, almost toxic, legal system to becoming a US citizen; and Mo’s simple desire to provide for his family while living up to the expectations of his deceased father — all the while maintaining some sense of cultural self — it’s frustrating to watch Mo’s descent into a functional addiction.

His dependence on a cocktail of Codeine and other ingredients pushes him, and his support system, to the brink.

Mo is the charming centre of a cast of characters, each wholly fleshed out with their own desires and demons, trying to make the best of their situations. They are framed in a way that we never laugh at them but with them; we never pity, but empathise with them, and even when they disappoint us, we don’t get angry at them, but for them.

Unequivocally, what Amer has created in Mo is a refreshing portrait of a specific subset of Palestinian-American life that doesn’t paint Arabs as victims or oppressors, but as real, fully formed people who have a voice and a story that deserves to be told.

Updated: August 25, 2022, 9:20 AM
MO

Creators: Mohammed Amer, Ramy Youssef

Stars: Mohammed Amer, Teresa Ruiz, Omar Elba

Rating: 4/5

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