Ramadan 2021 and the Shadow of Genre

by Hazem Fahmy

The undisputed apex of television seasons across the Arab world, every Ramadan over the last decade has brought with it an overwhelming slate of narrative television, often morphing local generic practices with the increasingly globalized language of “prestige” television. In such a turbulent landscape, the somewhat conventional ensemble drama of Egyptian television has perhaps never been so malleable. As more directors migrate from cinema and younger stars increasingly prove their reliability, new subgenres are proliferating all over the place.

2021 was a banner year for a lot of these emerging subgenres. The success of the action-packed, and profoundly patriarchal, hara drama Molook el-Gad’ana proved that the lucrativeness of that formula was by no means exclusive to Mohamed Ramadan. Meanwhile, the Amina Khalil vehicle, Beware of Zizi, demonstrated how the upper-class female-centric social dramedy of shows like last year’s Why Not? (in which she also stars) and 2018’s Sabe’ Gar was here to stay. As is the case in any fairly developed narrative media landscape, none of these subgenres are completely new. They build off of traditional formulae and local televisual references. For all their flaws, and there are many, these aforementioned shows achieve a generic and thematic cohesion through this synthesis.

Being a whopping thirty-episode sprint, the average Ramadan serial is usually in some shape or form an ensemble story. No matter the size of the star at the center, the sheer length of the program, paired with the daily airing of new episodes, necessitates multiple dynamic character arcs to keep audiences engaged. There are exceptions, of course. Starring the legendary Yehia el-Fakharany, this year’s Naguib Zahy Zarkash, for instance featured numerous vital supporting roles, but still very much centered on the titular character. Zarkash, however, was a comedy. Even among that genre, this level of star-centering has grown increasingly rare.

Though star/ensemble dramas have over the last decade ranged in tone, production value, and (to a far lesser extent) politic, many of them often blur together even for the most avid viewers. This is especially the case with the broad and amorphous category of star/ensemble dramas that centers primarily on the personal tribulations of upper-middle to upper-class Cairenes. While virtually all Ramadan dramas eventually brush up against the social, this loose subgroup tends to focus more on the narrative momentum of dynamic romantic and familial relationships. Here, infidelity and other forms of scandalous betrayals abound.

The same can’t be said for Unbreakable (Ded el-Kasr) and Newton’s Game, two shows that in their first ten episodes were some of the most interesting dramas of the year. Initially, both shows set themselves apart by their willingness to play around with generic elements, to shake up the standard format of the hybrid Ramadan star/ensemble drama. Despite their promising beginnings, both shows later descended into a convoluted swirl of chaos. This, in itself, is not entirely unique. The toxic production culture of contemporary Ramadan shows, where it is still common to continue filming as episodes air, often leads to what I’ve come to refer to as Ramadan third act burnout. All genres are liable to fall prey to this but star/ensemble dramas are often hit the hardest. A slate of initially fascinating and well-grounded characters can swerve into messy and convoluted ends as the production struggles to conclude the story on a balanced note. Much of the problems that plagued Unbreakable and Newton were therefore not exactly unique. Nevertheless, these two shows’ failures stem from their inability to keep up the interesting elements that differentiated their first acts and later fumblings from those of other shows.

The first act of Unbreakable is a fairly straightforward dramatic whodunit. We are introduced to Nelly Karim’s Salma, a massively popular social media influencer who seems to lead the perfect life with her husband Karim (Mohamed Farrag). The story kicks into gear when he comes home to find her passed out from a hit to her head. She goes into a coma and, in proper whodunit fashion, we learn the intricacies of her world through a mix of flashbacks and the interviews the detective assigned to the case conducts with her family and friends. Before long, however, Salma wakes up from the coma and the true culprit is unmasked. The revelation is narratively plausible, but emotionally unsatisfying. Even worse is the show’s immediate pivot into the realm of the conventional star/ensemble drama. We start cutting between Salma’s struggles with her husband and the various other romantic and familial tensions around her. It’s competently made, but nothing to write home about.

The final stretch of the show, the last five episodes or so, makes the bizarre decision to (briefly) become a whodunit again. After Salma arrives with her sister at the apartment of, Salah (Moustafa Darwish), the mysterious man from her past who’d been blackmailing her (average stuff for a Ramadan drama), she is shocked to find her sister’s husband, Mostafa (Hamza el-Eily) standing over Salah’s lifeless body. Before they can escape, the police arrive and arrest all of them. Now, it is she who stands accused of a crime with no clear answers in sight. The cop from earlier in the show returns to solve the case, and is immediately unconvinced by Mostafa’s attempted confession. The whodunit is back on. For two episodes. The real killer is caught in the episodes following Mostafa’s false confession. Case open and shut.

It is beyond me to say whose choice this was. The industry’s production culture is highly volatile. You hear rumors all the time about who got barred from what show, or which production company. It’s hard to consistently know what is vs. what might be happening. At the same time, it’s hard to believe that this was not the decision of someone beyond the screenwriter. Unbreakable’s first act had such a particular narrative flow that gets abrasively shattered the moment Salma wakes up. The shift into a more traditional star/ensemble drama format doesn’t work as a follow-up because the whodunit itself doesn’t cater to character development in the same way a conventional drama can.

If the minds behind Unbreakable wanted to prioritize the telling of a story in which an influencer decides to unplug from her life and open a restaurant by the sea (yes, this is how it ends) then the whodunit was a terrible genre for that story. While good whodunits are by no means static, the genre overall is not particularly invested in dynamic character arcs as much as it is in examining the characters as they are, beyond the façade they put up to prove that they, well, did not do it. Much like the detectives and investigators that populate them, whodunits tend to be more interested in uncovering what is already there, the specific pattern of events that lead to the particular moment being investigated. It is a genre of narrative excavation.

A similarly catastrophic misunderstanding of its own influences drove Newton’s Game off the edge. The main influence in question is Breaking Bad, a show whose sensibilities, themes, and even intro, can be felt heavily throughout Newton’s entire run. For starters, there’s the generic hybridity of the family drama and the crime thriller, though Newton certainly always leaned far more on the former than the latter. Secondly, and far more noticeably, is its attempt to adhere to a narratively and thematically clockwork universe, that is a fictional world in which the most monumental story beats are dictated by some of the smallest decisions, reactions, and mistakes.

Clockwork universes are great because they play with questions of agency and fate. It’s not simply that small things lead to big things. Instead they aim to create a sense of irony and awe at the narrative progression, whether it’s good for the hero or not. These are some of the hardest stories to tell because they require an extremely consistent level of highly interconnected storytelling. Deciding to write one is like trying to make macarons. Great if you can pull it off, if not there’s no shame in making regular cookies. Everything Newton borrowed from Breaking Bad initially strengthened it, but the show’s failure to understand why and how those elements worked in the original title was its downfall.

Newton follows Mona Zaki’s Hana and Mohamed Mamdouh’s Hazem, a seemingly loving couple who run an ailing apiary. Distressed by their financial struggles, they concoct a plan for the pregnant Hana to give birth in the US so that their firstborn may attain citizenship and in turn better opportunities in life. It becomes clear very quickly that Hazem does not actually trust Hana very much, on any level, and does not approve of her following through on this plan alone.

His worst nightmare comes true when, through a series of escalating misfortunes, Hana becomes stuck in Los Angeles without him. Initially, she is unable to get back to Cairo before the birth. However, in direct defiance of her husband and family’s complete lack of faith, she soon becomes determined to stay in the US until her child is born. Her relationship with Hazem suffers , culminating with him orally divorcing her on the phone. Things only get worse from there.

While Hana is stuck abroad, the apiary’s new landlord, Badr, becomes increasingly belligerent. Played by the illustrious Sayed Ragab, the demeanor and hazy origins of this shadowy figure were a clear nod to Breaking Bad’s iconic villain, Gus Fring. Beyond Ragab’s own performance, the arc of Badr and Hazem’s relationship is reminiscent of the American show. Initially seen as a threat, especially after one of his goons burns down the apiary, Badr becomes an evermore compelling character when he invites Hazem to rebuild his apiary on the condition that he make him a jar of honey out of poppy plants. Hazem has no idea what Badr plans to do with this opium honey, but he goes through with it out of fear.

The sequences of events that lead Hana and Hazem to these two dire situations are exemplary of clockwork universe storytelling done right. There’s a potent sense of things crashing into place, rather than falling down neatly, but it is still clear to the viewer at all times how the minute actions and reactions in question added up to catastrophic and unforeseeable results. This clarity is eviscerated around the midway point of the series.

Hana and Hazem transform from flawed but grounded characters into avatars of chaos. Bad decisions made because of bad circumstances become bad decisions made for the sake of dramatic escalation. The best example of the script’s sharp dip in quality, however, is neither protagonist, but Badr.

We are introduced to Badr as a Gus Fring-inspired villain, only for the show transform him into a vehicle for comic relief. The man who once all but implied that he could ruin Hazem simply for speaking with his girlfriend, Amina (Aicha Ben Ahmed), is later astoundingly at peace when she leaves him for Hazem, while they both still live in Badr’s mansion. Badr’s decision to forgive Hazem and work with him was initially a masterclass in suspense. The episodes that followed kept me gripped, restlessly awaiting the moment the trap would be revealed. But there was no trap. Badr went from a landlord who could get you and your pregnant wife killed for the thrill of it to a friend? A kind boss? An ice breaker when Hana returns to Egypt and she and Hazem are at each other’s throats?

Badr’s sudden transformation is less a subversion of Gus Fring and more of a disastrous misunderstanding of what made his arc with Walter White compelling. Gus’s choice to continue working with Walt at the beginning of Season 4, despite just having been on the verge of getting rid of him, is not rooted in a change of character, but of circumstance. The continuation of Badr’s relationship with Hazem seems at first to be little more than a practical matter for the former––he needs someone to make him a jar of opium honey, Hazem is a beekeeper over whom he has power. But in the final stretch of the show, the opium honey becomes little more than a convoluted plot device to get both men embroiled in a legal scandal. Their alliance is, otherwise, built on thin air.

At the end of the day, both these Ramadan shows and their initially compelling protagonists were failed by their scripts’ cowardice, flattened by the bizarre decision to abandon the generic elements that made the shows interesting in the first place. I hope that in coming years, when future filmmakers and fans look back on what went wrong, they recognize that it wasn’t in the show’s borrowings of relatively unconventional narrative and generic mechanics. Adaptation and influence are the lifeblood of any narrative medium, the storyteller must simply be prepared to go through with it, all the way to the end.

Hazem Fahmy  is a writer and critic from Cairo. He runs the media criticism newsletter, Zam Zoum, on Letterdrop.