Ramadan 2019 TV: What watching has done to us
 
 

Do you know of anyone following a TV show they actually like this Ramadan? We didn’t think so.

You can imagine our reporters’ reactions when we asked them to review this year’s Ramadan TV productions in order to put together our annual guide for our readers. Let’s say they didn’t take it well, and we can’t blame them. This season was a flop before it even started. It is the official start of the state’s monopoly over TV production, manifested in the General Intelligence Services-affiliated Egyptian Media Group, the head of which, Tamer Morsy, is the owner of Synergy, the production company behind more than half of this year’s series. Competitors have been kicked out of the picture, stifling an industry that had just begun to thrive. That, in and of itself, is not the main issue, but its effects on production is: The only genres allowed are action, mystery and crime (most of the time it’s all in one). There’s a complicated murder in every single show, with endless scenes featuring wide eyes and piercing screams and rushing steps, slow motion sequences with tense, forbidding music in the foreground, and every other cheap cliché you can think of. It’s as though there was a checklist every writer had to commit to — regular social dramas simply wouldn’t do.

Oh, well — what could we do? We decided to watch the shows anyway, for old times’ sake. But it wasn’t that easy: This year, episodes are no longer being uploaded on YouTube; we could only watch them on the state’s own streaming platform: Watch iT!. At the beginning, we took our mission seriously — we were actually willing to pay for an account. But that didn’t work either, because the service was blocked as a result of too many hacking attempts. We tried to find pirated episodes online (which we actually had to use a VPN for, because the government blocked all of the major free streaming websites where episodes would normally be available). By the time the creators of Watch iT! announced it would be relaunching for free until the end of the month, it was already too late — but even then we tried, and some of us are still unable to subscribe.

Our dear, dear readers: We know you don’t really care about the shows this season — let’s face it, they’re horrific. As such, this isn’t the usual “what to watch and what to drop” series we publish. Rather, it’s “what watching has done to us,” something we’re still trying to gauge. You might, however, still want to read this, just to get an idea of what Egypt’s TV industry has come to under the watch of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council and its Drama Committee, the elaborate schemes of Tamer Morsy and the direction of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. If nothing else, it is our attempt at documenting this critical turning point for the years to come.

(Melo)Drama

Kalabsh 3 (Cuffs 3)

Selim al-Ansary (Amir Karara), son of the benevolent Egyptian police force, is as brave and heroic as always. The beginning of the third installment of the series sees him undercover in a terrorist cell in Syria. There’s blood and corpses galore, but, of course, we have faith in Ansary’s ability to put an end to the violence and save all the women and children.

Ansary then returns to the homeland, his mother’s arms and those of his mentor, General Galal (Ahmed Abdel Aziz), who seems to be a father figure to every young officer in the Ministry of Interior. Kalabsh 3 tackles all the top subjects on the agenda of the Egyptian police right now: terrorism, illegal migration and, of course, the hidden forces threatening the nation. The show even features biological warfare. Corrupt businessman Akram Safwan (Hesham Selim) injects Ansary with a deadly virus to which only he has the cure. Ansary convinces him that he is “a traitor” and that they have a common objective, and only then does Safwan agree to give him the antidote. Yet despite this dangerous charade, everyone knows Ansary will end up protecting his country and avenging his son, wife and sister (all of whom he has lost in tragic circumstances).

The golden principles of the Interior Ministry are best manifested when the hero of all heroes, General Galal, cooperates with an opposition leader who offers to help the police when he discovers that Egypt is indeed under threat — because when national security is at stake, all differences must be swept aside. It is meant to be a lesson: The police will treat the opposition with integrity, as long as they are loyal and honorable, not reckless traitors.  

The women in the show, meanwhile, are not really characters. They are merely plot tools, only there to support or threaten the men and their overflowing testosterone.

Do we recommend it? If you enjoyed Harb Karmouz (Karmouz War, 2018), have a penchant for badly executed action scenes, and want to support the invincible duo that is Amir Karara and director Peter Mimi, then by all means, do watch this. But if you’re wondering if this installment is any different from the two that preceded it, rest assured — there’s nothing new here.

Mamlaket El Ghagar (Kingdom of the Gypsies)

Betting on the excitement offered by the subject of “gypsies” (Roma) — an unconventional community with its own rules — and playing on the general intrigue of all the urban legends it has birthed, the writer of this series fails to deliver anything but a prosaic, theatrical representation of his topic of choice.

Fifi Abdou is — as she probably likes to envision herself, or how her audiences envision her — the “queen of the gypsies.” She’s strong, fair, brave, desired by all men, loud and foul-mouthed, and she always has the last word. As for Horeya Farghaly, she plays a smart, cunning “gypsy” girl who goes beyond what her people can do. You see, she is a “modern gypsy:” a professional hacker who infiltrates websites and communicates in code and has all the trademark facets of all Egyptian spy movie heroes since the 1970s.

The community we see reminds us not of the “gypsy” storyline Mariam Naoum wrote in “Sign al-Nissa” (Women’s Prison, 2015), for instance, but rather of the ambience of “Laanet Karma” (Karma’s Curse), last year’s Haifa Wehbe TV series, which also made us cringe.

We’re aware that the artistic aspect should be the last thing on our minds when it comes to evaluating such a show — because let’s face it, who expects any art here? — but we simply cannot ignore the strange editing, with the totally absurd cuts between scenes. Another detail we could not help but notice is how Abdou and Farghaly have butchered the pronunciation of most words, as they seem to suffer to let out a full sentence. However, the theatrical performance as well as the entertaining verbal catfights are enough to make us overlook these tiny, insignificant details.

Do we recommend it? You might as well watch a couple of episodes to try and find 10 differences between the original Fifi Abdou and her daughter Azza Megahed on the show (in one of the scenes, we were blown away by the filters the cinematographers applied to make Abdou look so convincingly young, before realizing it was actually her daughter), as well as another 10 differences between Amir Karara and his brother, Ahmed Karara, who also stars in the series.

Qabeel

Qabeel follows policeman Tarek Kamal (Mohamed Mamdouh) as he investigates a series of anonymous crimes with the help of the younger first lieutenant Abdel Rahman (Aly el-Tayeb). Tarek suffers from the trauma of the murder of his wife, Sarah (Rosaline Elbay). He subsequently goes on a three-month sabbatical and is forced to return to work by his boss, although he has not yet made a full recovery. Tarek constantly imagines seeing his wife and hearing her voice, and he intentionally foregoes taking his medication so the hallucinations can continue. This, however, opens the door for many other unwanted delusions.

The crimes begin when a Facebook account with the name “Qabeel” posts a photo of Sama (Amina Khalil), tied up and unconscious, threatening to kill her soon, with no demand for a ransom or anything at all to let her go. Later on, Qabeel posts another photo of Sama, and this time she is dead. The same scenario is repeated multiple times and with different people, and Tarek cannot find out who did it, nor can he make any other links between the murders.

In parallel to this storyline, we gradually come to learn that Sarah’s murder was an act of revenge because Tarek tried to put an end to the activities of business mogul Hamza al-Komy (Ahmed Kamal), or so Tarek thinks.

Even though the police force uses state-of-the-art methods to gather information on the crimes in the show, Abdel Rahman’s skills appear to be closer to those of an amateur. For example, they do not use the phone tracking feature to locate the victims until Qabeel’s fifth murder. Abdel Rahman is seen gathering information from Facebook pages like any regular stalker, not a policeman who has access to resources normal people don’t have. It also took the force days to locate the spot from which Qabeel makes his Facebook posts, something that usually takes a lot less time.

Additionally, it is so far unclear why Tarek’s supervisors are adamant to let him in particular handle this investigation despite his unstable mental state, and the fact that he has shown no special abilities at all when it comes to solving the mystery.

Do we recommend it? Yes, if you’re a fan of thrillers and police dramas. Qabeel has proven to be engaging enough, and Mamdouh delivers a great performance. The show is tightly structured and fast paced, and in each episode new threads are revealed, although they are so far not connected. We’re hoping the puzzle pieces will come together in the end.

Amar Hadi (Hadi’s Moon)

The series follows the family of Hadi (Hani Salama), which consists of his wife Mariam (Dalia Mostafa), and his daughter Fayrouz (Reem Abdel Qader), in addition to his uncle Abul Makarem (Hadi El Gayyar) who owns a car dealership where all the men in the family work: Hadi, his brother Essam (Mohsen Mohie Eddin), and his cousin, who for some reason has a turbulent relationship with Essam.

The actual events of the series begin when Hadi gets in an accident on his way back from a vacation with his wife and daughter, who dies. Naturally, over half of the episode is taken up by the funeral (a sequence that is common among almost every TV series this year, filmed in slow motion for no apparent reason and coupled with annoying music that is supposed to be sad but actually fails to evoke any emotion in us). Consequently, Hadi sinks into a deep depression and countless bottles of Jägermeister (a very strange choice of drink for a man in mourning). One night, in a bout of anger and self-blame, Hadi (whom we later discover is a race-car champion) goes for a drive on the streets of Cairo. His speeding causes him to crash into another car, putting him into a long coma. The surprise is that he wakes up to find his daughter still alive, while his wife — despite still being Mariam — is a different woman (Yosra El Lozy).

Everyone acts as if everything is fine and nothing is out of the ordinary, and when Hadi asks them about what happened they tell him the accident must have messed with his head. We are then taken on a series of inexplicable flashbacks where we see the beginnings of Hadi and Mariam’s relationship. We are also exposed to the irrelevant mystery of the death of one of Hadi’s friends (Mourad Makram) due to a drug overdose, and how Hadi hides his death from everyone and throws his body in the sea (yet another unjustified decision).

Parallel to Salama’s confusion and incessant screaming in everybody’s faces in his attempts to figure out his situation, we sometimes find ourselves watching tension-filled scenes in which his whole family (and other characters who suddenly appear with no introduction) talk about Hadi in hushed, urgent tones. “What are we going to do about Hadi?” they ask, and we don’t really understand what the issue is, or the motives they might have to lie to  Hadi — or to do anything they do at all, really — because they aren’t really characters, just actors arranged awkwardly around the location; none of their dialogue is the least bit convincing.

Do we recommend it? No. Not only because of the show’s obvious problems, but also because watching Mohsen Mohie Eddin completely ruin his legacy with a role in this sad, sad show is a very painful experience.

Zelzal (Earthquake)

This time around, Mohamed Ramadan manages to fulfill the recommendations of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council’s Drama Committee without abandoning his famous formula: poor young man falls in love with a rich man’s daughter — the same man who takes over the land of said poor young man’s father — and thus becomes a hero by circumstance.

Ramadan plays Mohamed Harbi, who in his younger years on the show represents absolute benevolence: an orphan who barely survived the tragic death of his family as a result of the 1992 earthquake only to end up — as per his fate and the recommendations of the Regulatory Council, of course —  seeking refuge at the home of the family’s Christian neighbor Ghobrial, owner of the neighborhood’s ahwa. He shows him kindness, care, and encourages him to focus on his studies. Harbi is a cultured, hard-working, well-mannered young man who finds no shame in working to save up his allowance to buy Mohamed Mounir’s new cassette tape and cover the walls of his room with his posters. There is a wonderful scene where we see him dancing to the song “Al-Toul wal Lon wal Horreyya” (Length, Color and Freedom) on a rooftop, mimicking the movements of the famous singer.

As for the older Harbi, he is the poster boy for how the youth of Egypt should be. He works to support himself and cover the costs of his education, has an athletic build, is kind to his neighbor (a mother whose son lives abroad) and rushes her to the hospital to save her life when needed. He does not smoke, and not only refuses to take advantage of the girl he loves when she comes to visit him without her parents’ knowledge but actually takes her by the hand and returns her to them. He has a sense of dignity and refuses to give up his land, and is a brave man who isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade to its face.

This long set-up was necessary to prepare us for the dramatic transformations that take place in the following episodes, an amalgam of the events of Ramadan’s previous works: The hero transforms into a monster who is not afraid to grab what’s his, as the folk tale says.

Do we recommend it? Unlike Ramadan’s previous TV series, this one is a bit low on thrill and suspense  — perhaps to tone it down a bit after the controversy his previous works have caused — so you probably won’t miss much. Unless, out of curiosity, you want to watch Ramadan being the aforementioned poster boy, for a change.

Haddoutet Morra (Morra’s Story)

May we never live to see a Ramadan season without a show that stars Ghada Abdel Razek. Here, she plays the titular character, Morra, a personification of all sins, from pre-marital sex to sorcery. Her reputation as the daughter of Saneyya al-Ewga, a woman known for practicing dark magic, precedes her wherever she goes.

Morra marries Shehata (Mohamed Shaheen), a man she cannot stand, because he is her only option after her rich lover spurns her upon finding out that she’s pregnant. Time passes and she has two daughters with him (in addition to her eldest boy), and one day Shehata comes to her with a proposition to sell one of them to a rich couple desperate for a child of their own. She refuses at first, but when she is subjected to a second blow from her ex-lover, she decides she will sell all three children, not just one.

She comes up with an intricate plan, worthy of an episode of CSI. She convinces the entire village that the children have died as a result of swallowing caustic soda (the only believable aspect of the show, which begins in the early 1990s, a time when so many children died of the same cause that the government launched TV campaigns warning against it). Even though the bodies being buried are actually pillows, we still get the full funeral treatment, with all the wailing and screaming. Morra then kills her husband and flees the village with the price she got for her kids. She goes to Alexandria, where more exceedingly melodramatic events ensue.

Morra’s story is a cautionary tale of sorts, but we’re still not sure if the protagonist is being portrayed as a victim of a society plagued with inequality, or as a villain.

Do we recommend it? If you’re a masochist, maybe.

Abu Gabal

Powerful men-in-charge are the trend du-jour this Ramadan season (and every season, to be honest), but none of them are as tough as Mostafa Shaban’s Hassan, the protagonist of “Abu Gabal” (with the exception of Amir Karara as Selim al-Ansary, of course). The series starts with a scene in which Hassan oversees a construction site, giving out directions to his subordinates. We then move to the real estate company his father owns, where an argument takes place between him and his brother over construction on an unlicensed plot of land. Hassan is, of course, an honest, God-fearing man. Angered by his brother’s suggestions, he reprimands him and storms out.

Later on, we are introduced to his wife and three children, and we see them share moments of familial bliss — until tragedy strikes. Hassan’s wife goes out to run an errand and leaves two of the kids at home, only to come back to find the apartment on fire. Hassan arrives at the exact same moment and — being the brave, strong man he is — bursts into the burning building in an attempt to rescue the children, but it is too late. The kids die, and Hassan instantly divorces his wife because she went out and “left the children to burn.”

What comes next is a never-ending sequence of over-acted grief: a funeral followed by a burial (the scene in which a father carries his child’s body occurs in at least four TV series this year); wailing and screaming; slow motion galore; a sappy soundtrack that drowns out all other sounds; and hysterical, borderline-manic reactions from everyone present.

You would think that this dose of garish melodrama was enough,  but no. The writers decide to kill off Hassan’s youngest (and sweetest) brother in a car accident, the news of which his brothers receive during the deceased children’s funeral. To make matters worse, Hassan’s father collapses and is admitted to the ICU upon hearing what happened to his grandchildren. And, needless to say, the creators could not pass up a chance for another funeral/burial sequence for the brother — one that is essentially identical to the former.

There is no explanation for all this utter misery except that the authorities controlling production this season want to make viewers feel that however wretched their lives are, there are always those who are much worse off than they are: At least your children are alive and safe in your arms; poverty is nothing when compared to such loss — count your blessings and thank God for what you have. Or, as Hassan yells at his brother in one scene: “Take all the money you want but bring me back my kids!”

The series also contains misogynistic overtones. After all, it revolves around a bunch of men fighting over the family business (and money), and the women are portrayed as mere instruments, or obstacles. One of Hassan’s sisters-in-law is portrayed as so comically domineering and self-centered that Hassan’s father warns him against the likes of her: “Beware of a woman who knows how to control a man,” he says. In one scene, we see an example of that “control” when she leaves the dinner table and asks her husband to do the dishes. This, in the eyes of the makers of the series, is solid proof that said husband is not man enough and allows his wife to boss him around.

Lastly, Abu Gabal would never be a true Ramadan-style series if it only tackled family drama; to abide by the rules, the writers had to include an element of crime and mystery. The fire at Hassan’s apartment was not an accident, as we are told by a detective. Who could be behind it, then?

Do we recommend it? Perhaps, if you want to know who caused the fire and are interested in following Hassan’s hard road to vengeance. As for us, we’re done with this one.

 

 

Zai al-Shams (Like the Sun)

A lot of controversy surrounded this series before it even started airing this Ramadan. Filmmaker Kamla Abu Zekry, who directed the first few episodes of the series, stepped away after a dispute with the production company over the order of the actors’ names in the opening credits. Later, another dispute broke out between Abu Zekry and the show’s replacement director, Sameh Abdelaziz, when she accused him of taking credit for her work. Meanwhile, artist Hala El Sharouny claimed the show’s creators used artwork by her and another artist without their permission.

Apart from all this real-life drama, the show is an adaptation of an Italian series called “Sorelle,” overseen by Egyptian screenwriter Mariam Naoum. It is a crime story that also tackles social themes such as betrayal, the emotional consequences of death, and the general complexity of familial and human relationships. The protagonist, Nour (Dina El Sherbiny) leaves Egypt as a result of a huge falling out with her sister Farida (Riham Abdel Ghafour), after she finds out that she had been having an affair with the former’s fiancé (Ahmed El Saadany). Ironically, she also returns because of her sister, although this time it is because of her disappearance.

The family later discovers that Farida has died and that it is probably a murder. However, the show’s creators’ attempts at adding an extra element of suspense doesn’t quite work: When Farida’s ghost appears to Nour and their mother, it seems vengeful, although it is meant to be consoling. Fun fact: In its report about the show, the Drama Committee condemned the scenes featuring the ghost as “promoting myths.”

The first few episodes offer great performances by the actors, especially in the scenes following the discovery of the betrayal, Farida’s death, and the complex relationship between the two sisters. In the more recent episodes, however, the show’s rhythm has faltered, and the same emotions seem to be recycled and expressed over and over by the characters, with no real progression in terms of story.

Do we recommend it? Only if you are curious to know who murdered Farida; we believe this is the only motive that could keep you hooked for the rest of the show’s run.

Baraka

“Department store TV show” was the first term that came to mind while watching the first few episodes of Baraka: suspense, comedy, drama, and action — all in one. The titular character (Amr Saad) is a man with Upper Egypt roots who now lives in Cairo with his mother and sister and is dependable enough to help fellow natives of his hometown in the city even though he is already in a lot of trouble that seems to build up over time.

The series starts with a prologue where we witness the assassination of a judge, the plotters of which are a businessman sentenced to death, a middleman called Salah (Mohsen Mansour) and a member of a terrorist group they recruit to execute the operation. We then move on to Baraka’s misadventures on his birthday — which he doesn’t like mentioned or celebrated. He gets into a fight with a man trying to take over his house in order to build a large apartment complex, and despite his opponent having many men as backup, Baraka manages to stand his ground until his neighbors come to his aid.

He then cunningly stops the authorities’ attempts to tear down a building being constructed by his company, before cooperating with public prosecution and the police to capture a neighborhood official who asks Baraka’s mother (Hala Sidky) for a bribe. By sheer chance, a phone call to a wrong number thrusts Baraka into the midst of an organization linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (as are all gangs/terrorist organizations in every TV series in the past few years), which, coincidentally, is the same one that assassinated the judge in the opening scene. Baraka has a memory card the group is chasing him to obtain, and when he’s at his wit’s end, he visits his father in prison to ask him what to do.

The plot is rather scattered, and the show’s naivete is clear right from the very first scene when the terrorist begins to reconsider the assassination, to which Salah reacts by reading him a few comical phrases about “paradise” from a piece of paper to encourage him. Moreover, the protagonist’s idealism is far from convincing: He offers financial support to those in need but does not hesitate to spend the money an old neighbor is saving up with him until he’s able to afford an Omra. He also attempts to bypass the law in order to prevent his unlicensed building from being demolished.  

Another thing worth mentioning is the protagonist’s accent, which — apart from being different from that of his imprisoned father’s and his visiting relative’s — is not really Upper Egyptian at all.

Do we recommend it? If you’re interested in onscreen depictions of Upper Egyptian characters, there are many older Egyptian TV series that are more worthy of your time.

Ibn Osoul

It is safe to say that Hamada Helal plays Tamer Hosny on this show: Misho, or Hisham, is a lively young man with a great sense of humor (a horrible sense of humor, in reality), who — for some unfathomable reason — is desired by every woman onscreen. He runs a diamond trade company that his father has entrusted to him, and much like many other series this season, the theme of family conflict is prevalent here, as he disagrees with his brother on how the company — and its affiliated stores — should be run. He is secretly married to Neama (Ayten Amer), one of the girls who work in the company, and is constantly chased by his old girlfriends, who are seeking revenge for how badly he ended things with them.

In a very weird scene, an attractive woman welcomes Misho into her home with a “Hi baby!”, and kisses him before he gives her a birthday present. He then orders her to change out of her short skirt and tight top into something a bit less revealing before they go out and celebrate; “You’re going out with a man, you understand?” he bellows — in a manner that is meant to be funny — to which she playfully objects then promptly obliges, of course. In the restaurant, he again reprimands her for wearing a skirt with a slit so long it exposes her whole leg, and he asks the waiter for a needle and thread before getting into a fight with another man in the restaurant for showing interest in her. They end up at the police station and, in a shocking reveal, we discover something we still cannot believe: Sola (Ossoul), the woman the men fought over, and who shared all these flirtatious interactions with Helal, is none other than Misho’s mother.

Everything that follows is nothing short of ridiculous: Overtly inappropriate looks, gestures, and touches between Helal and his mother, and a sad attempt at comic relief in the form of the mother’s uncle (Emad Rashad), a failed writer constantly reading lines from his novel out loud and forcing the house servants to act them out. The uncle is constantly criticizing Sola and Misho’s relationship, and when the possibility of Sola’s re-marriage comes up (Misho’s father left her years ago to marry the maid), Misho bursts into a fit of jealousy to which she responds with trembling assurances that no, of course she is not considering marriage. It’s gross, to be honest, not only because of the ever-present sexual tension between mother and son, but also because of how the show cements the traditional image of Egyptian machismo á la Taymour wi Shafiaa (2007), which is no longer — and in all truth, has never been — funny. That is in addition to the derogatory portrayal of women’s bodies as one-liner material.

The series does not lack elements of thrill and suspense, of course, as per the state’s guidelines. We see an unknown person watching Misho in front of his workplace, then a masked man hides in his car and sprays him with a substance that makes him lose focus, resulting in an accident. We spend the next few episodes watching Misho and his mother try to find out who did it, as he receives more threats at unexpected times. Is it his brother? Or one of his bitter ex-girlfriends? We really couldn’t care less.

Do we recommend it? Not in a million years.

Weld El Ghalaba (Son of the Wretched)

Another series set in Upper Egypt with the central themes of drug dealing, poverty, honor killings and the cruelty of life. Nothing new to see here.

The main plot follows the conflict between Dahi (Mohamad Mamdouh), a rich drug lord, and Issa (Ahmad El Sakka), an impoverished history teacher. A good, safe old trope: the poor and honorable versus the wealthy and corrupt.

Dahi has money and power as a result of his drug dealing with Ezzat (Hady El Gayar), while Issa struggles helplessly to provide for his family’s expenses, as the eldest brother: his mother’s (Safaa El Toukhy) much-needed liver transplant and his sister’s impending marriage, in addition to some other debts he cannot afford to pay.

Dahi wages a war against Issa for no reason other than Issa’s rejection of Dahi’s marriage proposal to his sister Safiyya (Injy El Mokadem) many years before. He succeeds in cornering him with a series of crises, which force the ethical, honorable history teacher to smuggle drugs on the evil Dahi’s account, in a complete dramatic transformation preceded only by a broken, bitter look in Issa’s eyes, directly after which we see him discussing the shipment of drugs he is preparing to smuggle with Dahi.

The plot thickens when Issa discovers that Dahi has evidence on his involvement in drug smuggling, and later on finds out that Dahi has secretly married his other sister, Amar. This is when Issa starts to seek revenge.

Expectedly, the series contains several melodramatic scenes and overwrought monologues about poverty, oppression, and injustice, accompanied by an overuse of sad background music to force viewers into a certain mood, not too mention tons of expository dialogue. The characters are painfully one-dimensional: the bad are very, very bad; and the good are always essentially good, even if they stray for a while. The show, however, is not completely devoid of some essential comic relief, provided by Sakka.

Do we recommend it? Tough question. Weld El Ghalaba is not that bad in comparison to other series this season. It could potentially work as a series the family could gather around the TV to watch and root for the good guy. Whether or not you decide to continue is up to you.

Zodiac

Based on the short story collection titled Hazzak al-Yom (Your Horoscope, 2008) by the late Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, Zodiac is an original production by streaming platform VIU, which is screening other Egyptian series this year, including Haddoutet Morra.

The show follows several students studying mass communication at a private university who — after working with a journalist on an investigation about a famous psychic of sorts — become entrenched in a series of events with a group of crooks attempting to reactivate an old Pharaonic spell devised by an iconic ancient Egyptian wizard.

There are two main worlds that intersect throughout the show: the regular world of college students, with all the complex relations between them (who has a crush on who, who’s jealous of whom, and all that), and the world of ancient magic, mysteries and talismans. The protagonist, Yomna (Asmaa Abul Yazeed), exists somewhere between those two worlds. She appears to be an average girl who works at a sewing factory but she is far from normal; she has frequent episodes where all the usual cliches happen: her eyes roll back into her head, and she begins to tremble and utter strange, hieroglyphic sentences. A chance encounter brings her in touch with one of the students, who is preoccupied with astrology and tarot readings.

The plotline that follows the students’ lives is almost seamless. It features several promising young actors, who have enough space here to show skills they perhaps don’t get the chance to display in works where bigger stars dominate. Perhaps they also stand out because the characters themselves are written with enough depth to make up for the badly executed twists abundant in the show’s supernatural plot, which takes itself so seriously that it sometimes borders on comedy.

Do we recommend it? The show is only 15 episodes long, but you might want to check it out if you’re willing to sign up for a VIU account.  

Le Akher Nafas (To the Last Breath)

Yet another series beginning with a funeral. Salma (Yasmine Abdel Aziz) is a widow whose police officer husband, Hazem (Fathi Abdel Wahab), has just died on the job. As usual, we spend what feels like an eternity on the burial sequence alone. We then see Salma attend a memorial service held for her late husband at a building affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, organized by Hazem’s superiors and colleagues, who speak of nothing but his courage and heroism.

Later on, Salma’s children break a frame containing Hazem’s photo, which she was given at the memorial, only for a hotel room key to drop out of it. She discovers that Hazem had reserved the room for a whole year, and finds a number of documents in its safe that reveal he was not entirely honest with her (in addition to a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, which bears no significance whatsoever, we suppose, except to tell us that the writer knows his literature). She revisits the place where the memorial was held but is appalled to discover that it’s actually a Financial Transactions company that has nothing to do with the MoI, which she then stops by, only to be told that Hazem had actually been fired years ago. Salma then looks through his phone and makes some random calls, and this is when we find out that — oh, dear God — Hazem was part of an Islamist group, the members of which also speak of “Brother Hazem” as a hero and a martyr.

Such a story might have piqued our interest, had it not been for the lousy directing and the nerve-wracking soundtrack that never, ever stops, even in uneventful scenes where Salma is simply boiling pasta in the kitchen. That is not to mention Abdel Aziz’s borderline comedic performance, particularly when she’s supposed to be sad (it’s quite astounding to us how her acting skills have not improved in any way ever since her first on-screen appearance almost twenty years ago). Additionally, the series features many flashback scenes between Salma and Hazem that have nothing whatsoever to do with the current plotline, neither raising any questions nor offering any answers (except for one scene in which Salma asks Hazem why he grew his beard).

There is also one subplot that follows Hazem’s cousin, Selim (played by ex-footballer Ahmad Salah Hosni) who wins the number one prize for on-screen smugness this season, and who appears to be the most desperate of them all to come off as macho enough (his role model is most probably real-life brother-in-law Amir Karara). Selim is the head of a security services company and enjoys tormenting his brother-in-law and employee (Morad Makram). When the latter complains to his wife, she casually suggests killing her brother so they’ll have the company for themselves. Yes, for real.

Do we recommend it? This show is bad, but it’s still not the worst this season. Also, part of us wants to find out what the writers are trying to say regarding the connection between the Islamists and the police in light of the strict censorship of General Intelligence Service (as manifested in Egyptian Media Group) and the Drama Committee.  

Lams Aktaf (Knock-out)

Yasser Galal returns as a leading man for the third Ramadan in a row, following last year’s Raheem and 2017’s Zel al-Raees (Shadow of the President). Here, he plays Adham, an Uber driver who owns a gym that he struggles to keep afloat. He is strong and chivalrous, and although his tough circumstances bring him down, he maintains his dignity.

The series starts with the son of Adham’s best friend, Ashraf (played by Olympic champion Karam Gaber — for real) being kidnapped by a powerful drug lord. Even though Ashraf had not spoken to Adham for years, as a result of the latter injuring him in a wrestling tournament years ago (he remains in a wheelchair), he can’t help but call Adham when his son, Ali, goes missing.

After beating up a few guys (as Galal always does in his shows) in his attempt to free Ali, Adham runs into another formidable drug dealer: Hamza (Fathi Abdel Wahab), and it’s easy to tell both men will be at the opposing ends of a very dramatic conflict to come.

The show, however, is filled with the usual narrative cliches. The drug dealers are walking stereotypes (Abdel Wahab plays an eccentric villain very similar to his role in last year’s Abu Omar al-Masry), the plot is incoherent, and the show’s women (Hanan Motawe, Samar Morsi, and Iman al-Assi) are pretty much non-existent in the early episodes.

Do we recommend it? No. We’re still unable to determine what this show is really about even though we’ve watched several episodes. We’re also unable to watch any more of it, because it’s difficult to find pirated episodes online, and we’ve so far been unable to sign up to Watch iT! (technical issues, as you must have heard). In short, it’s not worth the trouble.

Hekayti (My Story)

Hekayti is a futile attempt at exploring the worn-out tale of a violent familial feud driven by land and money.

It opens with Dalida, played by an unconvincing Yasmine Sabry, jogging at night on Stanley Bridge before getting hit by a car. On a hospital bed in Alexandria, far from her hometown somewhere in Upper Egypt, she tells four officers that she suspects that her family attempted to kill her. “It’s a long story,” she mutters, and then we flashback and watch the story unfold.

From then on, nothing seems quite real. We learn that Dalida’s mom, Sophia, traveled from Paris to Egypt to work at a clothing factory owned by brothers Saad, Selim and Soliman Shedid after spotting a job advert that was presumably put up by the trio in a French newspaper — odd choice, yes.

As Sophia works on overturning the business, the three men crush on her. She eventually marries Soliman, a man who spends, and loves, carelessly. By the second episode, she dies of lung cancer, leaving behind her only daughter and protégé Dalida, who, by this point, is about to graduate from art school and dreams of becoming a fashion designer.

As Soliman (Ahmed Bedair) conspires to exclude Selim (Gamal Abdel Nasser) from the family estate, conflict festers between the Shedid clan, especially after abrupt love triangles emerge between the brothers’ six children. Matters heat up when Noor, Soliman’s daughter, is killed by Hossam, Selim’s son and Dalida’s callous stepbrother. Adam, Noor’s brother, is ordered by his father to kill Dalida, the woman he loves, to avenge his sister. Selim rescues Dalida in time and convinces her to marry Nader, Saad’s son, in the process securing his own livelihood in the family business, but Dalida escapes to Alexandria and leaves all this hell behind.

Do we recommend it? No, we don’t. The series is heavy on miserable, grossly dramatized lines and performances, the kind of dramatization that is dull and off-putting. It is littered with slow-motion scenes to enhance what is essentially unfelt, a stylistic choice that only succeeds in boring us to death. 

Alamet Estefham (Question Mark)

Sameh (Haitham Ahmad Zaki) is a psychiatrist on a sabbatical that he decides to cut short and go back to the hospital in which he works after having a dream about one of his patients, Nouh El Shawaf (Mohamad Ragab). Nouh’s case is one that no psychiatrist has been able to handle so far — including the head of the hospital himself, Dr. Mahmoud (Emad Rashad) — except for the late Dr. Tarek (Edward), who died in a car crash. Ever since Dr. Tarek’s death, Sameh had been trying to convince Dr. Mahmoud to assign him Nouh’s case, but his supervisor keeps refusing, his excuse being that the case is too dangerous.

We don’t really know what Nouh’s problem is, all we do know is that he has violent tendencies. He never talks — we only ever see him fight with fellow patients, manically draw question marks on blank papers, or crawl on the floor of the room where he is locked in solitary confinement every time he causes trouble. We find out that his uncle (Mahmoud El Bezawy) is a wealthy, powerful businessman who seemingly offers some sort of funding to the hospital in order for them to keep his nephew in their care.

Later on, one of the nurses in the hospital commits suicide, and we find out he had had a fight with Nouh prior to his death. A detective (Mohamad Nagati) then comes to investigate the matter, which further increases Sameh’s obsession with Nouh’s case, and drives him to seek out Dr. Tarek’s widow to find out more about it.

The show creators do all they can to create a state of constant intrigue: the lighting is dark blue at all times (even the daytime scenes) and the suspenseful music never stops, and everything is in slow motion for no apparent reason — all effects that are used to add any element of excitement to otherwise painstakingly boring scenes.

Do we recommend it? Even though we still don’t really know Nouh’s story, and we also discover that Dr. Tarek is still alive (he calls Sameh and warns him against taking on Nouh’s case), we don’t really care. The mystery, as usual, is abundant, but horribly contrived.

Sheikh al-Hara 3 (Sheikh of the Alley 3)

If this season’s trend is suspenseful drama, then there is no show that tops this one. It stars the queen of bold talk shows, Basma Wahba, previously known for her show on Islamic TV channel Iqraa in the early 2000s.

Two years ago, actress Somaya al-Khashab performed a duet with singer Ahmed Saad in her show Al-Halal (2017) and, ever since then, talk of their relationship has not stopped, especially after the couple got married. The first talk show host to dedicate an episode to the story was Amr Adib, who hosted Saad in his studio and received a live call from Khashab, who openly announced that she and Saad shared a “spiritual relationship.” Days later, notorious talk show host Riham Said sat down with actress Reem al-Baroudy in another heated episode, where Baroudy cried and recounted her long romantic history with Saad. In May 2018, Baroudy made another appearance, this time with Wahba in Shaikh al-Hara, where she spent the entire time talking about Saad and Khashab’s relationship. Almost a year later, in April 2019, Khashab and Saad had divorced, and Khashab was a guest on two more episodes, one with Adib and another with CBC host Radwa al-Sherbiny. This was all, however, nothing but build-up to this year’s peak: four full episodes of Shaikh al-Hara entirely dedicated to the divorce; two with Saad — where he responded to Khashab’s interview with Sherbiny — and another two with Khashab (even though Wahba had promised Saad she would not host Khashab to comment on his claims).

The high doses of drama found in such talk shows — led by household names such as Wahba and Said, in addition to Samar al-Kilani and, above all, of course, Lebanese talk show host Tony Khalifa (all sort of a modern replacement for Mofeed Fawzi, who used to perform the same role in the 90s) — makes Shaikh al-Hara, we believe, a logical addition to our list.

Wahba makes every single sentence spoken and every response given during the show seem incredibly important — even dangerous. She frames insignificant sentences as massive revelations and highlights irrelevant events as huge turning points. She raises her eyebrows, gapes and stares in wonder, all to a background of tense music. Every question she asks is an accusation. The information itself does not matter; it is the way it’s relayed that gives it weight — so much weight you might find yourself holding your breath.

What makes Sheikh al-Hara stand out among similar talk shows is the segment where the sheikh himself appears; a silhouetted figure with a highly processed voice who corners the guest and manages to bring out their deepest, darkest secrets. There is a recurrent moment in every episode where we see the guest with a flustered look on their face as they listen to Sheikh al-Hara ask them about something they thought only their mother knew about, while Wahba laughs and assures them she has nothing to do with these questions; they’re not hers.

Do we recommend it? As we said, there is no show that tops this one in terms of excitement, but don’t go further than the links we’ve added here; we fear for you.

(Attempts at) Comedy

Super Miro

The show’s intro begins with music that resembles hundreds of Hollywood superhero films, before the angry voice of a man interrupts it, exclaiming: “What is this? I want an Egyptian superhero!”

This is just what the makers of Super Miro sought to provide: A unique story of an Egyptian superhero, an appealing concept in itself, especially after the remarkable success of one such attempt not too long ago, when the trio Ahmed Fahmy, Hisham Maged and Shiko collaborated with director Shadi Ali in Al-Ragol al-Enab (The Hibiscus Man, 2013). The trailer is promising as well, as we see the protagonist, Miro (Amy Samir Ghanem) get rid of her enemies using original weapons such as “sweaty armpits,” her voice and movements reminiscent of Aphrodite from the iconic 1980s anime show Mazinger Z.

The show, itself, however, does not really meet those expectations.

Amira Zaki Taffaf is a journalist in her twenties. Her great-grandfather was the Arab world’s first Taftaf conductor; her mother died when she was a child, leaving her to be raised by her father (Samir Ghanem). She dreams of rebelling against the routine of her daily life to become a superhero, able to save children from burning buses as we see her fantasize in the beginning of the show. The truth is, however, everything scares her, and no one really takes her seriously.

Things change when Amira runs into an old classmate known as Hudhud Fakhr al-Arab (Pride of the Arabs, played by Hamdi al-Mirghani) just when she is about to kill herself by jumping in front of a car he has invented. Hudhud reminds her of how brave she was defending kids who were bullied at school, and embarks on a plan to turn Amira into a superhero, mostly involving experiments in his lab and physical exercises on his roof.

Even though the intro assures the story is 100 percent original and “unfabricated,” it has so far been very predictable, and director Walid al-Halafawi’s visual style is typical of Hollywood blockbusters, as evident in the scenes that take place within the headquarters of the villain, Ms. Cobra (Inaam Salousa). The twist, we suppose, is that Super Miro does not really have any superpowers, nor does Hudhud attempt to give her any. He convinces Amira that the suit he has designed for her — with its pink cape and printed microbus quote (We’re strong but God has made us humble) — is the secret to her power.

Amira is usually using her persuasive powers rather than force to influence people’s behavior, saving cart donkeys and stray animals in the process. Until one day, she accidentally falls on a thief trying to run away — while wearing her superhero costume — and instantly becomes a media sensation.

The show’s creators take a light stab at the corruption of local media by ridiculing the regulations of the newspaper where Amira works, as well as how other media outlets deal with her. Beyond such attempts, however, the show remains stale and unimaginative, not to mention unfunny.

Do we recommend it? It might be worth a shot to follow Amira and Hudhud’s quest to bring down the villains, particularly Ms. Cobra’s gang, but don’t expect much laughter in the process.

 

Al-Wad Sayed al-Shahat

If you’re wondering whether the allusion to Adel Imam’s play, Al-Wad Sayed al-Shaghal (Sayed the Servant) goes beyond this series title, you’ll be quick to find that it does not. Unlike Imam’s Sayed — smart, resourceful and resilient — Ahmed Famy’s Sayed al-Shahat is dumb and helpless, a clear departure from the actor’s previous roles, where he was almost always a witty troublemaker and a problem solver.

This show does, however, share some attributes with Fahmy’s Rayah al-Madame (Placate the Missus), which aired two Ramadans ago. Both series starred a trio of actors: Fahmy, real-life wife Hana al-Zahed and Mohamed Abel Rahman take center stage in this year’s production, while in Rayah al-Madame Fahmy shared it with Akram Hosny and Mai Omar (it is ironic how Famy continues to favor trios, even though he was the first to put an end to the one that shot him to stardom: his partnership with Hisham Maged and Shiko). Al-Wad Sayed al-Shahat also resembles Rayah al-Madame in that it consists of loosely related episodes that take place in the same world but each follow a new adventure.

Sayed is a modest man of below-average intelligence, married to a rich, clever, beautiful woman called Ritaj (Zahed). Like any other couple, their marriage often faces challenges, ones that — although pretty standard — are often complicated by Sayed’s inability to deal with them. In their attempts to show us how naive the character is, however, the writers end up overdoing it.

The plot begins to take shape when a gangster appears at their door, demanding six million dollars from Sayed, which he insists he had buried in a cemetery that Sayed’s family later acquired. Sayed then begins to search for his family members, coming across his brother (Abdel Rahman, the strongest performance in the show) in the process, who joins him on his quest to find the money.

Do we recommend it? No. You’ll laugh once every five episodes, if at all.

El Brinseesa Beesa (Princess Beesa)

This marks Mai Ezzeddine’s first TV collaboration with director Akram Farid, who had previously directed her cinematic masterpiece Ayazonno (2008), in which she also played more than one character.

Ezzeddine capitalizes on the title her “huge” fan base has bestowed upon her: “El Brinseesa” or “The Princess.” The thing about Brinseesa Beesa is not that it is yet another hackneyed, lousy series to join the ranks of all the other countless hackneyed, lousy series produced over the years, but that it legitimately harms the psychological wellbeing of any viewers that come across it. Ezzeddine takes the beloved Egyptian combination of loudness and vulgarity (also known as sharshaha) to a whole new level, attempting to create a “character” by doing one thing: convulsing. Seriously, everything is convulsing; her mouth, her eyes, her eyebrows; her whole body is convulsing. She walks as if she’s going for a kick in the shins, and talks as if she just ate something that’s been left out of the fridge for two weeks.

Watching only a couple of scenes, you will notice Ezzeddine’s idolization of Mohamad Saad, specifically his famous titular character in Al-Lemby (2002). Apparently, she has decided to become the female version of said character playing Beesa, the lower-class girl who works in a local wedding band. It doesn’t stop here, though: Ezzeddine also copies another character played by Saad, a female one, this time: Atata, the eccentric old woman he played in his 2004 film Okal, who is clearly the Ezzeddine’s reference in her performance of Beesa’s grandmother, Sekseka.  

Do we recommend it? Seeing Mai Ezzeldine playing these two characters will seriously harm your eyes. You have been warned.

Hogan

Mohamad Imam plays Hogan, a dim-witted young man with super strength. An orphan, Hogan is adopted by Bahloul, who takes advantage of him. It seems the writer could not settle on one specific image of a man with superior strength when creating the character. As a result, Hogan is a mash-up of the Egyptian stereotype of the man who eats glass, nails and whatever else he comes across, and the superheroes in Hollywood blockbusters. Hogan is nice, kind, and uses his power to serve good, but he’s also easy to control. His real name is Belal, but he’s nicknamed after the famous wrestler. The whole combination — simply put — is poorly made and hard to digest, and what makes it even worse is Imam’s failure to grasp any aspect of the character beyond trying his best to summon the spirit of his father’s character in the movie Al-Halfout (1985).

The series starts with a scene in a moulid (carnival), where we see a display of Hogan’s powers under Bahloul’s supervision, along with a performance by  Bahloul’s unloving wife Warda, a belly dancer. Out of the blue, a man called Soliman El-Wardani appears to take revenge on Bahloul for stealing money from him, which eventually leads to Hogan’s involvement in the murder of Soliman in an attempt to protect Bahloul. Hogan then runs away, moving from under Bahloul’s thumb to the control of Lotfy El Harraa’ and Horus — both of whom he meets by chance on a train — who then use his powers to help in their robberies.

The trope of the dumb thief whose smart friend controls him — an old formula used many times before, such as with Ahmad Eid’s character in Ewaa Weshak (Beware, 2003) — might bring forth a few laughs, which is probably what the creators of this show had in mind when they were making it. However, Hogan fails to deliver. With some action scenes added to the mix, which further muddle the identity of the show, the only remaining piece of the puzzle is Hogan’s character and where it could end up.

Do we recommend it? Only if you’re curious to figure out the purpose behind making this show. Honestly, though? Don’t waste your time on that.

Badal El Hadouta Talata (Three Stories in One)

After Donia Samir Ghanem’s last appearance in Fil La La Land (In La La Land, 2017), which was pretty disappointing, she returns with this fun, light comedy, which tells three different stories — each spanning 10 episodes — in an attempt to avoid the now-boring pattern of the usual 30 episodes.

Head writer Ayman Wattar succeeds in offering a new, fresh idea in the first 10 episodes, which follow a sharp, no-nonsense girl (Ghanem), who works in a matchmaking company that specializes in elaborate set-ups to get its clients together with their desired partners. Although actor Mohamed Sallam has previously played characters similar to Rashad, the character he plays in the episodes, he still offers an entertaining performance.

What makes the show special is how well-written the comedy itself is (with a lot of great one-liners),  how skilfully the actors deliver it, as well as how unexpected the events of each episode are. The challenge facing the series’ second story — namely its writer, Sherif Naguib — is that its lead character is Ghanem’s most successful character to date: Lahfa. Will he succeed in putting her in a new mold, so that the character doesn’t feel recycled?

Do we recommend it? If you’re looking for a bit of effortless laughter any time of the day, do check this out. And, of course, if you’ve been looking forward to the reappearance of Lahfa, then this show is for you.

Fekra b Million Geneih (A Million Pound Idea)

Alaa (Ali Rabie) is a young man who lives downtown with his mother (Sabrine), his father (Salah Abdallah), and his siblings. He dreams of studying engineering, but his Thanaweya Amma grades (half a grade, to be exact) stand in his way. Alaa overcomes his frustration with the help of his older, visually impaired friend Dr. Hamdi,  a professor of psychology who lives next to the Giza pyramids and spends all his time following Liverpool games and cheering for Mohamed Salah — “The Pride of Arabs” — even though he can’t actually see him play. Hamdi advises Alaa to “fly” and tells him that failure is nothing but the starting point on the road to success, which sends the latter on a quest to achieve his dream of inventing a car that works with solar energy. Subsequently, he somehow ends up breaking into a studio where TV host Sherif Amer is filming his show and asking the audience to each donate one pound to his bank account so he’ll raise enough money for his project. Just like that, he wakes up the next day to find his account balance at a million pounds, and the story progresses from there.

The episodes are too long for a comedy series (closing in at 45 minutes); they drag and contain no actual events most of the time. For example, one whole episode follows Alaa as he tries to convince his parents to give him money for a suit, while another is almost entirely dedicated to mocking his sister’s size. That is in addition to many musical numbers (one of which sees Sabrine performing her iconic ’90s children’s song “Ana al-Farkha W Ehna al-Katakeet” [I’m the Hen; We’re the Chicks]); all failed attempts at delivering some laughs. Not to mention, of course, the use of physical violence as comedic material all the time: The mother hits her youngest son when he talks back to her, the sister slaps her brother on the back of his head and curses at him when he fails at school, Alaa punches his sister when she causes him to lose his money, and so on.

The show, however, is perfect by the standards of the Drama Committee: the protagonist is a young, ambitious Egyptian man with a dream; and neither poverty nor frustration stand in his way. Polished, postcard-like shots of famous Cairo sites are used as stock shots between the scenes: famous Downtown squares, the Qasr El Nil bridge, the pyramids, and different shots of the Egyptian flag at full mast. In one particular scene, Alaa is taking a walk with his girlfriend next to the Cairo Citadel and suddenly says, “Look around, Egypt is the most beautiful country in the world!” And, of course, we don’t need to mention the Mohamed Salah posters plastered on the wall in almost every interior shot, as a collectively agreed-upon symbol of determination and success.

Do we recommend it? If you’re into Ali Rabie and have been following him since his early days on Masrah Masr, you might find something here that interests you. But to be honest, it’s not really worth the 45 minutes.

Talet Haz (A Spark of Luck)

Abdel Sabour (Mostafa Khater) is an ordinary employee who leads a quiet life with his wife (Ayten Amer), their daughter, his mother-in-law and his sisters. He minds his business and stays out of trouble, working as a taxi driver in the evenings to help support his family.

Despite his prudence, Abdel Sabour is entangled in a murder, and goes on the run with the help of his brother-in-law. He continues to find himself in one tough spot after another through no fault of his own; he is portrayed as a simple man who goes where life carries him.

After watching a few episodes, we’re still seriously unable to categorize this show. It appears that its creators mean for it to be a dark comedy, but truth be told, we didn’t encounter much comedy while watching, though it’s definitely dark. The situations Abdel Sabour keeps getting into are truly nightmarish, but there isn’t much beyond that. The show plays on the traditional Egyptian trope of the passive, helpless protagonist, unable to act or to make choices, who suddenly has to deal with being in the spotlight. It is a formula that usually does result in comedy, but something appears to be missing here.

It is safe to say that Mostafa Khater’s plan to become a star comedian with a mark of his own has failed; he has so far been unable to create a memorable character of his own, and this show is the ultimate proof.  

Do we recommend it? No.

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