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Ramadan TV: Seven things we learned from the 2021 shows

At the end of one of the worst seasons in recent history, the question still haunting Arab viewers is: how did it all go so horribly wrong?
This year's highlight, 'Newton's Cradle', starring Egyptian actress Mona Zaki, kicks off with a bang, but peters out (screengrab)

Editor's note: The following review contains spoilers for several Arabic-language television series aired in Ramadan this year

It may be known for fasting, but the holy month of Ramadan also happens to be the most lucrative TV season of the year in the Middle East. Aside from any pressing religious rituals, this is a time when Arabs from all walks of life, regardless of faith, will find themselves drawn to their television screens, ready to devour the countless offerings broadcasters toss their way.  

This tradition dates back to the introduction of television in Egypt the late '50s and it has barely changed in the succeeding 60 years. With each passing year, audiences naturally grew, generating increasingly higher advertising revenue. Programming mushroomed, especially in the 30-episode serials (broadcast one per night throughout the month) that would progressively draw some of the biggest stars of the region.

And as audiences grew, so too did the control ruling regimes exerted on content.

Counter Attack (Hagma Mortada) is an unintentionally self-parodying present-day espionage-thriller (Screengrab)
Counter Attack (Hagma Mortada) is an unintentionally self-parodying present-day espionage thriller (screengrab)

Despite the slow but steady rise of smaller markets like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria - which was neck and neck with Egypt briefly at the beginning of the century - Egyptian series remain the most dominant. They are popular across the Arab world, thanks not only to an enormous industry unparalleled in the region, but due to the substantial advancement in both fluent storytelling and appealing aesthetics.

Much has been written in recent years about President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime’s overreaching takeover of TV, the proliferation of censorship, and the increasing limitations over content.

The infinite news reports of the wheeling and dealing behind the operations of Synergy  – the military intelligence-affiliated conglomerate ruling Egyptian TV – paint a picture of an environment similar to Stasi Germany: performers forced to show allegiance to the regime; storylines wielded to promote nationalistic ideals, and unchecked finances.

Given the deteriorating quality of overall broadcast content, from serials, to talk shows and news programming, what we’re witnessing now bears a great resemblance to the stark production output of 1960s Egypt, after former president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised Egyptian cinema.

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In spite of the hostility and toxicity of this milieu, a few standout works still manage to beat the odds and break through each year - many of which, such as last year’s 100 Faces (Bi 100 Wesh), a comedy crime caper starring Nelly Karim and Asser Yassin, were not produced by Synergy.

That was not the case this year, a hugely underwhelming season informed by tired storylines, half-baked ideas, glaring excess in production values, and overall creative bankruptcy.

Technically and stylistically, Egyptian dramas – and to a lesser extent the aforementioned emerging markets – are no longer as lacking as they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of this year’s offerings are aesthetically quite impressive, and so too is the technical fluency reflected in the choreography of action, set design, and - to varying degrees - editing.

But it is the writing that continues to fail Arab dramas – a fundamental weakness undoubtedly amplified by censorship and the mounting political and morally conservative agenda of the ruling regimes.

Where Egyptian TV drama production goes from here is anyone’s guess. With Synergy showing no signs of releasing its grip, the sole hope lies with independent producers, provided they can find ways to work around the restrictions.

Netflix may prove to be a freer environment for creators, enjoying more autonomy and freedom from the region’s security apparatuses, but it’s too early to detect how far-reaching its potential influence would be.

1. State propaganda has gone full throttle

Reframing the political narrative and giving a facelift to the military and security apparatus have been among the foundational goals of Synergy, which has been adamant on including at least one show each year parading the heroics of the Egyptian police and state intelligence officials.

This year, however, Synergy outdid itself, ramping up the nationalistic tempo with three high-profile series unabashedly and explicitly endorsing the discourse of state propaganda.

The most acclaimed and most popular of the lot was The Choice 2 (El Ekhteyar 2), the sequel to last year’s blockbuster docu-fiction military propaganda piece written by Hani Sarhan and directed by Peter Mimi.

This year, the sequel has turned its attention to the police and security intelligence services, chronicling the valiant sacrifices of the “shadow men”, as it dubs them, using the same fusion of documentary and fiction.

Shrewdly inoculating its protagonists with some flaws (but not too many) to avoid last year’s accusations of hagiography, while emphasising the humanity of its misjudged heroes, The Choice 2 is a brilliant piece of supremely crafted visceral propaganda: cunning, unobtrusively manipulative, and undeniably rousing.

Its most dangerous device lies in the seamless fashion with which it conceals truth through omission. While the church bombings in the wake of the 2013 coup are portrayed, as well copious scenes of terrorist attacks in Cairo and Sinai that cost the lives of Egyptian police officers, and the much-discussed Rabaa massacre (though gravely misrepresented), there is no mention of the widespread police violations, tortures, killings, and kidnappings that were also taking place in the same time period.

Less popular were Counter Attack (Hagma Mortada), an unintentionally self-parodying present-day espionage-thriller written by Baher Dowidar (scribe of the first Choice instalment); and Cairo-Kabul, a multi-character drama exploring the connection between terrorism, the intelligence agency combatting it, and the misleading media in a pre-2011 revolution Egypt.

The first is a cacophony of outlandish conspiracy theories designed to expose the vicious plotting of western agencies threatening Egypt’s security. Foreign funding, academic institutions and human rights organisations are depicted as covert intel agencies hellbent on recruiting guileless Egyptian youth to destroy the country.

The second is an elementary school lesson about the presiding threats of terrorism; a childish warning against corrupting leftist media (the TV station the broadcast journalist works in is a stand-in for Al Jazeera); and an advocacy of moderate Islam, all rendered with the crassest form of blatant symbolism targeting the least discerning of citizens.

All three are crude examples of how low the state has descended in its frantic efforts to shape public opinion. A surreal Facebook post by an Egyptian channel summing up the lessons learned from The Choice and Counter Attack (including that conspiracy theories are no illusion) treads the line between hilarity and eeriness.

With both The Choice and Counter Attack confirmed for new seasons, the regime shows no intention of scaling back its propaganda machine.

2. The strongest series lost its way 

No other series this season has managed to garner the fervour and praise afforded to the early episodes of Tamer Mohsen’s Newton’s Cradle. Two of Mohsen’s three previous serials – Without Mentioning Names (Bedoon Zikr Asmaa, 2013) and Later Tonight (Haza Al Masaa, 2017) – are among the most critically acclaimed Arab TV dramas of the century. The latter in particular has been lauded for its frank depiction of marriage and sex – a benchmark that is yet to be surpassed. 

Newton’s Cradle – a non-Synergy production – kicked off with a bang, throwing the audience in the middle of the action. Egyptian superstar Mona Zaki is an agricultural researcher who travels to the US on her own to give birth to her child, as she waits for the arrival of her domineering husband (Mohamed Mamdouh). The plan goes bust as the husband fails to follow her. Then their marriage begins to collapse when she refuses to return to Egypt, setting in motion a cat-and-mouse game that becomes more complex when Islamist lawyer Mo’nes (Mohamed Farag) enters her life. 

The early episodes are unbearably tense as Zaki - the non-English speaking, down-on-her-luck new mother - struggles to survive in an alien environment in the absence of her nagging husband.

What starts off as an Ibsen-like study of a woman fighting for her independence, swiftly turns into a strange love triangle as Mohsen takes infinite detours with his highly disjointed narrative.

By the end of the series, it’s unclear what Newton’s Cradle is about: a cautionary tale of ill-advised people making equally ill-advised decisions; a feminist account of survival; an introspective look at toxic marital relationships, or a psychological study of bad parenting (Mo’nes’ obsessive behaviour is later revealed to be rooted in his parent’s dysfunctional relationship). Oh, and there’s also a head-scratching subplot revolving around a jar of opium-infused honey.

Mohsen is one of Arab TV’s most gifted directors, a master of suspense and affecting storytelling who is known for getting the best out of his actors. And the first half of the series contains some of the best performances of the year.

But suspense with no tangible dramatic purpose soon gives way to irritation, and the director’s frayed vision gradually leads to frustration and results in sheer apathy. Equally frustrating is Mohsen’s shallow treatment of the US segment, which teems with tired cliches and characters portrayed with infantile mindsets.

Mohsen’s latest work is not without its virtues, but given the director’s credentials and the great anticipation meeting the Later Tonight follow-up, it’s difficult not to regard Newton’s Cradle as anything but a disappointment.

3. Star-driven serials floundered

Most of the Ramadan chatter this year was not generated by the actual serials, as is the norm, but rather by the provocative statements made by many of the featured stars, who shamelessly aired their personal scandals online throughout the month, jumping onto the various trending bandwagons.

There were numerous stories of ugly divorces, infidelities, sexual harassment, backstage bickering and double-crossing by cast members of at least half a dozen series, and their associates. Viewers took to social media to express their palpable fatigue, which inadvertently reflected on the antagonistic reception of actual work (although it should be noted that Newton’s Cradle and The Choice 2, the season’s most popular series, wasn’t plagued by the outrageous backstage drama that tainted several of the year’s biggest productions). 

The quality of these productions ranged from subpar to downright abysmal. Set in the 1940s, Musa, the latest action-melodrama from self-proclaimed superstar Mohamed Ramadan, is yet another showcase for the tiresomely controversial singer-actor’s brand of alpha machismo, albeit in an admittedly picturesque historical folk-like tale of revenge and resistance against the British occupation.

The great attention to detail provided by 34-year-old director Mohamed Salama is Musa’s strongest asset, as is Mohammed Mokhtar’s evocative cinematography. Musa is striking to look at, but it’s also too polished, too calculated, and too mechanical. And like nearly all of the season’s offerings, its narrative runs out of steam (and ideas) midway.

No other series has courted the kind of passionate hate that met Descendants of the Strangers (Nasl Al Aghrab), the troubled, extravagant production by director Mohamed Sami - with whom Synergy conspicuously announced a termination of ties following yet another series of petty public scandals.

Headlined by two of the Arab world’s biggest action stars – Ahmed El Sakka and Amir Karara – this bloody saga centres on the real-life decades-long war between the heads of two quarrelling families from Upper Egypt. who plot to annihilate one another as they venture to seize control of their village.

Unintentionally kitschy, pointlessly violent, and hideously acted, Descendants of the Strangers is one of the ugliest TV dramas in recent memory. A gigantic ego trip by a mildly talented director who has lost the plot.

4. Genre fare was a mixed bag

After the Arab world’s first major sci-fi TV production, The End, tanked when it debuted in Ramadan last year, observers were hoping that genre series would bounce back this year. But that didn’t happen and, once again, Arab writers failed to make a better stab at the genre.

Youssef El Sherif, the star of The End, returned with the ludicrous Covid-25, a futuristic quasi-horror that sees a new lethal virus spreading through eye contact. The early episodes are adept at capturing the fear and paranoia of the discovery of the virus as the authorities attempt to undermine its danger – a vivid reflection of the foreboding early days of the real Covid-19 era.

While any shred of reality is soon abandoned as zombies enter the equation, Covid-25 at least has the distinction of being the first Arab zombie series. And one in which the physician hero finds a cure in … shampoo (or keratin, to be precise).

Between Heaven and Earth (Bayn El Sama Wa El Ard) meanwhile updates Salah Abu Sief’s 1960 satire – famously authored by Naguib Mahfouz – about a group of random individuals from different walks of life who are stranded in a broken-down elevator, to middling results.

Satire is swapped for tragedy as director Mohamed El Adl casts a judgmental eye over his fallen characters (since this is yet another Synergy production, all characters must eventually be punished for their sins) while failing to induce the claustrophobia of the elevator experience or sustaining tension over its 15-episode duration.

The best of the lot – and the sole notable title among the Gulf slate this year – was The Only Survivor (Al Najiya Al Waheeda), a whodunnit Kuwaiti thriller about the wife of a rich businessmen who is mysteriously murdered alongside the pair’s three children before she loses her memory.

Performances are predictably overboard and the suspense is diffused by the various purposeless subplots and stretched-out narrative, but the story remains riveting for the most part. It’s also refreshing to see a Gulf series move away from the prevalent social drama format.      

5. Comedy offers few laughs

Last year, 100 Faces dominated discussions by Arab viewers due to the increasing scarcity of comedy series. This year was another disappointing showing for comedies that were neither socially relevant nor particularly humorous.

Popular Saudi comedian Nasser al-Qasabi tackles the Covid-19 crisis in No Roaming (Mamnou al-Tajawol) with disastrous results, delivering a shabbily written, self-congratulatory sitcom that often feels awkward, obvious, and exploitative rather than insightful or cathartic.

Meanwhile, veteran Egyptian star Yehia El Fakharany made his small-screen comeback after a three-year absence with Naguib Zahi Zarkash, an intermittently amiable, unambitious, and largely forgettable adaptation of Eduardo De Filippo’s 1946 play, Filumena Marturano, about a careless, elderly rich man who finds out that he has three grown-up children from his former maid come mistress.  

More warmly received was Take Care of Zizi (Khalli Balak Min Zizi), an Egyptian comedy of manners about a thirtysomething wife dealing with ADHD – a disease seldom discussed in Arab productions – while also scrambling to carve out a new life for herself following her divorce. Well-intentioned and perceptive in parts, Zizi provides a smart, compassionate look at the inherited traumas ignorantly passed on from one generation to another in a society that continues to regard mental health and behavioural education as a luxury.

Some moments soar with emotional honesty, but the show is bogged down by over-earnestness and an American sitcom-like saccharinity that feel contrived and irksome. Zizi is thus an acquired taste – a light disease-of-the-week special, easier to admire than love.

Those who can overlook its thematic derivativeness and aesthetic flatness can surely enjoy it, although this writer found its excessive cheesiness insufferable. 

6. Two gems from Tunisia and Iraq

Last Ramadan, Tunisia gave us one of the best series of the year in the bracingly seedy multi-character drama El Nouba.

This year, director Lassaad Oueslati makes another case for the budding Tunisian TV industry with Fire (Harga), an exhaustive look at illegal immigration chronicled from multiple points of view.

While Fire doesn’t offer anything new about illegal immigration, it nonetheless remains a compelling, engrossing watch from start to finish, painting its characters not as victims but a byproduct of the unfulfilled promises of the revolution. The inclusion of African performers adds an additional shade of authenticity to a series that commendably sticks close to reality.

Another overlooked gem was The Red Zone (Al Manteqa Al Hamra), the first essential TV series from Iraq - a potboiler revolving around an Iraqi archeologist returning to Baghdad from France who is embroiled in a murder crime that unveils a web of corruption.

While certainly not groundbreaking, and rough around the edges, The Red Zone marks a major step forward for Iraqi TV drama, offering quality entertainment peppered with biting political commentary. 

7. Netflix has serious competition

The key takeaway from the 2021 Ramadan season is the rise of Arab streaming services, which offered some of the year’s biggest series exclusively on their platforms. While Netflix continues to dominate the Middle East streaming market with its 66.7 million subscribers, Shahid and Shahid VIP, Saudi broadcasting giant MBC’s streaming service, now boasts around 27 million viewers across the Arab world.

Meanwhile, Watchit, the new offspring of Synergy’s parent company Egyptian Media Group, recorded one million subscribers in the first year of its launch.

As internet speed improves across the region and older viewers abandon broadcasting in favour of ad-free streamers, Shahid and Watchit’s subscribers are expected to grow exponentially. The conglomerates behind the pair are the biggest producers of Arabic TV content in the region – a pole position Netflix cannot challenge any time soon.

Perhaps the most fascinating observation in the recently concluded Ramadan season is how Netflix – which does not offer any new content in Ramadan – seemed to completely disappear during the entire month. Netflix is sure to expand the size of its operations in the region as its subscriber base grows, but so will Shahid and Watchit, having already cemented their status as the default platforms for Arab content.

The real challenge for the pair, however, is sustaining their Ramadan momentum through the remainder of the year. Watchit gave a hint of the future to come with Lo’lo’, an Egyptian rags-to-riches melodrama that proved a massive hit with Arab viewers the world over when it premiered last December.

If Watchit and Shahid can replicate Lo’lo’s success every month with new content, Netflix may continue to struggle in becoming a major player in Arab TV production.