A lesser show might have tried to make the titular character a bit more likable, or, perhaps, implanted within him a desire to explain his culture to the rest of the world.
Hollywood’s efforts to address its diversity problems have gone through some predictable but occasionally hilarious growing pains. Random minorities now pop up in all sorts of unexpected places, whether in the boardrooms of corporate America, in rural police departments, or in fantastical landscapes that once were the provenance of white actors wearing prosthetic ears. Many of these efforts are laudable, if not always successful in doing anything other than putting a few different shades on an IMDb page. But they can also feel perfunctory, as if the show’s producers are just placating various peoples who they hope won’t cancel them on Twitter.
“Mo,” Netflix’s loosely autobiographical half-hour comedy based on the life of Mohammed Amer—a big, perpetually aggrieved, swaggering comedic lead in the tradition of Jackie Gleason—checks a lot of diversity boxes. The titular character, Mo, is a Palestinian refugee who lives in Houston. He has a Latina girlfriend named Maria, a Nigerian best friend named Nick, and an Asian American drug dealer named Chien. Outside of a do-gooder immigration lawyer who forgets to take her shoes off when entering the house, there are zero white characters of note.
“This is a show about belonging,” Amer recently told CNN. “This is a show about identity and wanting to be seen.” This type of statement ordinarily would place “Mo” under immediate suspicion of being the type of earnest immigrant production that only really exists to show white people how minorities live. I think of such shows as falling into one of two categories: We’re Just Like You, or Dignity Porn.
Shows in the former category exist to show that minorities do exist in many of the same places that you’d expect to find wealthy white people: doctor’s offices, law firms, or private schools. Every fifth or so episode, these minorities still go to their parents’ house to eat a bowl of stew and whatever their country’s version of dumplings might be. The protagonist’s internal struggle almost always comes from their searing, but also somehow low-stakes need to triangulate their own success with the fact that they are, in fact, an oppressed minority. Dignity Porn, by contrast, is a more well-worn tradition—one that shows the same minorities in humbler environs, whether in a refugee camp or in the barrio. The goal is to show the viewer that these immigrants also have lives and jokes and hopes and dreams. What connects these two categories is their orientation around the well-to-do, culturally literate person—either the white colleague who forges unexpected friendship with a minority, or the imagined audience member whose empathy is meant to expand with every passing frame.
“Mo” is something else—something much better. The show follows the title character; his mother, Yusra; and his brother Sameer, as they try to navigate the American asylum and immigration system. Mo and his family don’t particularly love or hate America; they are simply trying to survive in it—–they want to get their papers so they can work normal jobs and not get scooped up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The diverse characters on the show don’t seem to feel particularly oppressed by whiteness, nor do they spend much time thinking about the price of their success because they, for the most part, are all struggling. We learn, through flashback, that Mo’s family members were Palestinian refugees who had to leave their adopted home of Kuwait in 1991 during the Gulf War, and that Mo’s father was tortured. The family’s fight over their asylum status—depicted through a series of lawyers and court dates—has lasted over twenty years.
While that backstory, and Mo’s Muslim faith, are both vital to the show’s plot, “Mo” never quite falls into the usual martyrdom traps, in large part because Mo himself is not especially heroic or dignified. He, instead, is an aging lean addict who flies into irrational fits of anger that endanger his friends. He hustles fake watches and bags out the trunk of his car, and has grandiose illusions about how much he’s actually sacrificed for his family.
A lesser show might have tried to make Mo a bit more likable, or, perhaps, implanted within him an earnest desire to explain his culture to the rest of the world. But every time I felt like “Mo” was going to dive into a teaching moment, Amer started acting like an asshole. Early in the season, Mo comes across a chocolate-hummus display in a grocery store and berates the nice white woman who is passing out samples. Instead of using the chocolate hummus as an easy gag—something that white people and minorities can agree is ridiculous—the show creates a moment of discomfort, with Mo screaming in her face. Culture, for Mo, is sacred except when inconvenient. He gets tattoos, much to the horror of his mother. He works as a strip-club d.j. When he rants about his faith or the history of olive oil, we aren’t exactly sure how seriously we should take his claims, or the capricious and sometimes opportunistic ways he leverages his identity. In other words, he acts like every immigrant I’ve ever met who grew up in America.
But Amer also has an eye for what defines immigrants outside of cultural theatre. In an episode late in the first season, Sameer has an incident at his job at a fast-food chicken spot. By this point, the audience has caught on to the fact that he is almost certainly on the autism spectrum; his family deals with his condition with a mix of doting and denial. When Mo and his estranged sister come to the rescue, Sameer’s boss and a teen-aged co-worker point out that Sameer is autistic, which Mo vehemently denies. Their mother, Yusra, similarly feigns ignorance when Sameer asks why she never asks about his marriage prospects—something she bothers Mo about throughout the show. “Is it because there’s something wrong with me?” he says. “Don’t ever think like that,” she replies. Sameer’s family members never acknowledge his condition by name, and there’s no reckoning that affirms the ways of the old world or the new. All of it is simply endured.
In the background of all of this is the city of Houston, with its highways, strip malls, and sprawling neighborhoods. The city, home to more than 1.5 million immigrants and seventy thousand refugees, makes itself present in nearly every scene, whether in the soundtrack, which features local artists such as Fat Pat, Big Pokey, and Paul Wall, in Mo’s classic American sedan, or among the cowboys Mo finesses into buying knockoff goods. Amer’s Houston introduces us to a different kind of immigrant from what Hollywood usually offers up: the characters are prickly, resourceful, unassimilated. They aren’t preoccupied by whether white people will like or understand them. Nobody went to Harvard, or even Rice. Everyone is hustling, but not in a particularly glamorous way. Mo’s Palestinian family, Mexican girlfriend, and Nigerian best friend all switch between their native tongues and English; they run auto-repair shops and work in barber shops; they argue in hookah bars about Israel, Palestine, and 1947. All these scenes are delivered with a warmth, confidence, and a localism that evokes Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, E-40’s Bay Area, or the Philadelphia that Sylvester Stallone memorialized in “Rocky.” This, I believe, is an actual feat of representation–—not an account of how individual minorities interact with the white world, but, rather, a detailed portrait of a place and the immigrant strivers who live in it.
I don’t really think “Mo” is a show about identity or belonging, as Amer said in his CNN interview. But I do agree that, at its strongest, it makes a point about being seen—not by outsiders who need every gesture to be made legible, but by people who can appreciate the touching, yet ultimately doomed ways that the characters try to connect. Today’s minority creators can sometimes confuse melancholia for nuance, neuroses for insight, and moody low-light camera tricks for art. It is genuinely refreshing to see a protagonist who resists sympathy or identification—a big, loud man onscreen who yells about everything from Rolexes to prayer mats, but keeps quiet in those discomforting moments when we, in fact, are not just like you.
All Rights Reserved for Jay Caspian Kang