Netflix’s new series Mo begins almost like The Sopranos. We see a heavyset figure (the comedian Mo Amer) drive to work. The shots alternate between Mo, smoking a cigarette and bopping to the sounds of “Sittin’ Sidewayz” by Paul Wall and Big Pokey, and half-glimpsed shots of the world he passes – not New Jersey but Houston, Texas. He arrives at work (a tech repair shop) and is abruptly sacked, amid fears that the business will be targeted in an immigration crackdown (Mo is a Palestinian refugee). Later in the episode, he is caught up in a random shooting at a supermarket; he gets a bullet in the arm but, uninsured, he refuses to go to hospital. Does this sound much like comedy to you?
Obviously not, you might think. But Mo is not your traditional sitcom. Created by Amer and comedian Ramy Youssef, the eight-episode series, which draws from aspects of Amer’s own life, is part of the school of bittersweet, artsy modern sitcoms that also includes the likes of Atlanta, Ramy and Master of None. The comparisons to Ramy in particular are inevitable, thanks to the shared presences of Youssef (who also created and stars in Ramy) and Amer (who plays Ramy’s cousin Mo in the award-winning Hulu series). But from the very start of Mo, it’s clear that this is its own thing: a little less deep, perhaps, but quicker to a joke – and with its own unique point of view.
Most of Mo’s story threads are set up in the first episode. After defaulting back to his old line of work – selling knockoff shoes and handbags out of the back of his car – Mo sets about finding a proper job. Another running plotline sees him attempt to navigate the convolutions of the US asylum system to secure him and his mother Yusra (Yusra Najjar) legal status. Mo’s immediate family also includes his brother, Sameer (Omar Elba), who is on the spectrum. The supporting cast are all solid but Teresa Ruiz, playing Mo’s Mexican-American girlfriend Maria, is a standout, and her character adds another interesting perspective – and some cultural clashes – into the mix. At the heart of things, Amer’s performance is thoroughly enjoyable, with his innate comic charisma slipping through the dramatic facade in spurts.
At a time when Netflix’s commissioning strategy is increasingly under scrutiny, Mo feels like exactly what the streaming service should be championing: smart, unflashy adult programming with a clear sense of identity and a distinct creative voice. In the best way possible, this doesn’t really feel like a Netflix series. (Perhaps the involvement of A24, the film distribution company known for its slew of acclaimed indie hits, such as Lady Bird and Everything Everywhere All at Once, is a factor.) Fans of Ramy shouldn’t go in simply expecting more of the same, but Mo tells a sharp, funny and often quite moving story that more than deserves to be heard.