A show about seeking asylum in America, generational trauma, and cultural displacement hardly sounds like the recipe for a good comedy. But somehow, Netflix‘s Mo accomplishes this, while still shedding light on strife and struggle as an immigrant.
Created by comedian Mo Amer, based on his own life, alongside Ramy Youssef, Mo explores the life of a Palestinian family in Houston, Texas who have a pending asylum case and bills to pay. Amer stars as the eponymous character, Mo Najjar, who struggles to keep odd jobs and support his family: his mother Yusra (Fara Bsieso) and brother Sameer (Omar Elba). In the debut episode, Mo is fired from a long-standing job due to his refugee status, which sets the course for what transpires over the next seven episodes. He gets a job at a strip club, becomes increasingly dependent on lean, gets into various conflicts with immigration lawyers, and essentially hides all of this from his household.
Mo’s internal and external woes are amplified by his relationship with Maria (Teresa Ruiz). They find themselves in a loving, long-term relationship, but one that causes tension thanks to religious differences (Maria is Catholic, Mo is Muslim) and subsequent disapproval from Yusra.
Mo and Maria (played by Teresa Ruiz) strive to have their relationship accepted.
One of the greatest strengths of Mo is its exploration of identity, whether this occurs through flashbacks or in present day scenes. Mo’s identity is complex, and his actions are often at odds with his religious and cultural values. This dichotomy is touchingly examined throughout, bringing into focus larger questions of contemporary America and what it means to be American.
Not only is the theme executed through situational comedy and dialogue, but in the aesthetic and raw depiction of Houston, where Amer actually grew up, and in retrospective memories of Kuwait, where the fictional Najjars were forced to live after fleeing Palestine. These two locales serve Mo in vastly different ways but serve as the backbone of who he is, coming together in his code-switching and his various interests, amongst other things. His adopted city is one with deep-rooted friendships and adolescent history; but one where he lives in near-constant fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His once-home is a point of both pride and longing. One of the most endearing things about the latter is the infusion of Palestinian culture in the characters’ everyday lives. For example, Mo carries a bottle of his mother’s olive oil wherever he goes, a simultaneous sign of his roots and a metaphor for resilience for many Palestinians, which Amer has also alluded to in an interview. The character says it well himself in one episode: “Of course, Houston is home. I have another home I can’t go to yet”.
Mo and his mother Yusra (Farah Bsieso).
The many corresponding emotions within the series is a testament to the writers and actors too; in one instance, we laugh at a perfectly-worded insult Mo whips out, and in the next moment we wait silently as we witness the urgency and hunger sitting beneath everything he does. “Tombstone”, episode 5, is a great example of this seesaw: a particularly hilarious scene with the new lawyer Mo has hired stands out, but so does a poignant moment where Mo and his two siblings pray at their father’s grave. For viewers, there is both amusement and the chance for empathy, oftentimes at once.
Mo Amer, Omar Elba, Cherien Dabis, who play siblings in ‘Mo’, pray at their father’s grave.
The first season ends on a cliffhanger for Mo, whose character viewers will increasingly root for, and Netflix hasn’t yet confirmed if Season 2 is in the works. But a sophomore season would be well deserved. Mo may be one of the most important television shows of the year. The series confidently and acutely presents a reality for so many in America, who have spent decades in a country that they cannot legally define as their own. Representation, in Mo, is far from a mere buzzword. It informs everything that show has accomplished in its eight-episode run.
Telling the story of undocumented immigrants within strict time constraints and the comedic genre is no easy task, but each episode gives viewers fresh insight, quips to laugh about, and definitely things to ponder.