Warning: This article contains minor spoilers.
Netflix’s new heartfelt comedy series “Mo” provides an intimate look into one’s identity through the life of its protagonist, Mo Najjar. Mo’s life is a blend of two cultures and is marked by a turbulent childhood due to state violence and war. While he and his family struggle with obtaining proper legal documentation in the U.S., their lives in Houston are full of love, laughter and Palestinian American resilience.
From the beginning, Mo, who is played by Palestinian American comedian and creative Mo Amer, shows the joyful and humorous attitude that draws viewers closer to him. While humor remains an important aspect of the storytelling, the series tackles various political themes, including identity, legal documentation, labor protection, borders and trauma.
NextShark spoke with Amer, who also executive produces the series, to gain insight into his creative decisions and personal experiences on the show that is largely based on his own life.
With Palestinian culture being so deeply intertwined with the show’s storyline, Amer has a difficult time choosing which specific cultural reference is his favorite. He says the one that immediately comes to mind is the chocolate hummus scene, where Mo is offered a sample and immediately rejects it. He then shares that the scenes with the “shoes thing” – people failing to remove their shoes before entering someone’s house – stick out the most to him.
In a couple of scenes, Mo and his family talk about the importance of taking off one’s shoes not only because cleanliness is next to godliness, but also because it’s mainly just “gross” – especially if you’re coming back from a New York City subway station.
“Personally, I find it really gross when people wear their shoes in their own house. Watching reruns of ‘Seinfeld’ and seeing them come off the street and then jump on Jerry’s couch and their feet are all on it with their shoes. … Things like that really make me laugh,” says Amer, who laughs and pretends to scream in horror.
On the other hand, when it came to tough themes such as gun violence, displacement and drug abuse, Amer says that the limited time was a difficult restraint to overcome.
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“There’s so much to unpackage. You have eight episodes, 30 minutes max per episode — really, it’s like 22 minutes,” he explains. “There was a lot that we put into that short period of time, so I’m very proud of what we were able to get into the show.”
On the topic of what still needs to be unpacked, Amer gives an overview of what he and his team hope to explore in Season 2, including more details on Mo, his brothers, his dad and Mo’s Mexican American girlfriend Maria, who owns her own car shop.
Amer shares that it was also crucial to include “the Gulf War effect” and show “what happens in generational trauma,” especially with the consistent displacement that his family and many other families in places such as Syria, Palestine and Lebanon experience to this day.
“It’s still going on today,” says Amer. “Who’s in charge of Iraq, who’s doing what, uncertainty in Syria, in Palestine and Lebanon. This is still going on. These political decisions have consequences, and it falls, unfortunately, on the people.”
In fact, Amer says the most painful scene that he had to shoot — despite all of the show being a painful reenactment of his trauma — was a biographical depiction of his father’s torture during the Gulf War:
“I realized when I was doing this scene and I broke down afterward, I realized I never really mourned it in my life. I glossed over it because it had already happened, my dad had passed away for quite some time at that point. And I didn’t really focus on it to where the scene forced me to just see it, hear it, almost smell it.”
It’s an experience that affects him to this day, but Amer says he felt that he was blessed. Being vulnerable on camera was “cathartic,” and he hopes that for anyone who may have similar experiences, the scene can help bring peace and understanding, guiding them to “spiritual growth and mental growth.”
The show’s characters carry their histories with a genuine overtone that, when paired with its cinematography and excellent artistry, compels audiences to dig into the stylistic choices that accompany the actors’ phenomenal performances.
An example of this is how the show highlights olives and olive oil, which are cultural staples within Palestinian communities. They become conduits for moments of tenderness and connection that evoke an inexplicable feeling of comfort and belonging.
Amer describes the decision to focus on the tradition and plant itself as a form of emotional sanctuary for his Palestinian characters, saying, “The destruction of olive trees is a huge thing that Palestinians deal with when their lands are taken away and their trees are destroyed, which is very sad and disheartening.”
“Olive oil has a lot of properties — spiritual properties and healing properties — so we want to put that on display on the show,” he adds. “There’s the olive branch, the symbol of peace, as well. And then you have the parallels of the Texas, Houston, New Mexico and ‘maybe it belonged to us, not belong to you’ kind of element as well.”
Olive oil also provided a familiar comfort to Mo’s mother, Yusra Najjar (played by Farah Bsieso) “for her to feel, after all these years, ‘What’s my purpose? My kids are all grown, what is my thing now? What do I do, what makes me happy?’”
Amer sums it up beautifully: “For her, it’s making fresh olive oil from scratch. That is her way to always be tied into her roots.” He says he made sure to include a childhood song in one particular scene as a “symbol of love” to his mother. The scene itself makes Amer “emotional in the right way,” and he was so grateful to be able to do something so “beautiful” for the show.
He made sure that “Mo” was “grounded, it was real, and authentic” to his story while “being conscious of everyone else in the show and allowing everyone the space to grow.”