This image is from the official trailer for “Mo,” distributed by Netflix.

Within the first two minutes of “Mo,” our titular character has hopped from Spanish to English to Arabic in the span of one scene. Such is the pace of the show, and the life of Mo Najjar — loosely based on star Mohammed Amer (“Ramy”) himself — who seems to be constantly experiencing one life speed bump after the next. After performing stand-up for over two decades, with many a Netflix comedy special of his own, Amer’s “Mo” is a refreshing addition to the “stand-up comedian to self-titled comedy series” pipeline, which hasn’t really been all that fresh since the days of sitcom classics like “Seinfeld” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Co-created by Ramy Youssef (“Ramy”), that other Arab comedian your white friends might have heard of, “Mo” tackles the complexities of navigating life in America as a Muslim, an Arab and a refugee with an insightful story and plenty of self-deprecating laughs to go around.  

Centered around its self-titled protagonist, Mo is a Palestinian refugee living in Houston, Texas, who’s currently juggling two cultures, three languages and a side hustle as he and his family seek asylum and citizenship in America. 

Even on the relatively small spectrum of Arab-American representation in mainstream Western media, “Mo” could not be more different from its privileged, millennial cousin “Ramy” — which makes sense, as it is wholly unrealistic for a single show, or even two shows, to be in any way representative of the experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans as a whole. And yet, the niche of Arabic culture that much of the show’s best comedic material resides in is so incredibly nice to see on screen, because aside from a small ring of films and shows, it hasn’t really been done before. For once, Arabs aren’t the butt of the joke: Instead, the way that the world blatantly misperceives and disregards us is.  

In fact, what I enjoy most about “Mo” is that the show never fails to make an Arab viewer feel like they’re somehow in on the joke, not bothering to stop and explain to a presumably non-Arab audience. It’s all in the details, like how Mo constantly carries around a pocket-sized bottle of authentic Middle Eastern olive oil the way some people do Tabasco sauce. Or how he takes off his shoes when he enters someone’s home or a place of worship. Or the way people presume he’s Mexican, or that the “Palestine” he’s referring to is the city in Texas a few hours away, which Mo quips is “a real branding problem.” In one scene, he gets visibly upset upon seeing “chocolate dessert hummus,” an abomination that takes cultural appropriation to unforeseen heights and has plagued American grocery stores everywhere (Trader Joe’s, you will pay for your crimes). It’s the way that on numerous occasions, his mom (Farah Bsieso, “Daughters of Abdul-Rahman”) becomes every Arab mom I know and randomly starts speaking in Arabic when she’s around white people and doesn’t want them to understand. And although the subtitles translate all of the Arabic dialogue into English, there’s an inherent cultural context that makes the tone of an exasperated “astaghfirullah” or a perfectly timed “3anjad?” all the more hilarious. 

As a comedy, “Mo” could have very well quit while it was ahead, with the well-constructed dialogue and self-aware jokes, but its story strives to go deeper than that. It tackles some serious subject matters, most of which are fairly taboo topics within the Arab community, or any community, such as addiction, trauma, mental health and therapy. The layers of guilt surrounding his father’s death, as well as the Najjar family’s disheartening journey to receiving asylum, take a heavy toll on an otherwise brightly easygoing, “life of the party” Mo. These emotional undercurrents shine through in episode three, when he discovers some unsettling information about his father, as well as in episode five, in which Mo rekindles a taut relationship with his estranged sister Nadia (Cherien Dabis, “May in the Summer”). His family and friends try to keep him grounded and afloat, yet there remains that pesky awareness tugging the threads of his life loose, always looking over his shoulder for the day when it’ll all fall apart.  

In its second half, the show tends to fall a bit flat narratively as it unnecessarily raises the stakes. With the constant threat of deportation looming over him, Mo’s life already feels like an overworked pressure-cooker, always on the verge of exploding, which makes the inclusion of action-packed, high-intensity scenes, like Mo accidentally crossing the border to Mexico or getting stuck transporting a bag filled with drugs, all the more superfluous. It’s a little disappointing to watch the show sporadically rely on these cheaply exciting blips to up the ante of the plot. It only further destabilizes the tenuous ground Mo walks on and threatens to overtake the more intimate moments throughout the season. 

Narratively, “Mo” is not without its faults, and it’s by no means the most well-written comedy series I have ever seen. But it works, in its own way, on a profoundly emotional and genuinely comedic level to portray the complexities of one person’s semi-autobiographical story and in the process, the far too common experiences of displacement of millions of refugees.

Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at seirani@umich.edu.