Mo Amer's character in the new Netflix series "Mo" has a lot going on.
Amer, an actor and comedian who grew up in Houston, plays a version of himself in the eight-episode series, which is out today. Like the real Mo, the one on TV is Palestinian, and is in the middle of a decades-long legal struggle for citizenship. Without a work visa, he has a hard time finding lawful work. His brother's cat can't seem to settle on a kibble she likes. And to cope, he's started sipping lean – a mix of soda and Codeine.
"The immigration process makes it very difficult for him to, you know, do things that are above board because he don't have a work permit," Amer said of his character. "And then you have, like, the spiritual implications of that, right: whenever you do something that you don't want to do but have to do it out of necessity and giving away a little bit of your morals. And then you have the loss of his father, having to mourn him, being stateless and feeling less than. So this is really a story about belonging and feeling like an equal human being to the one next to you. And that's a love letter to Houston as well."
And making the show really feel like Houston was very important to the actor.
"There's never been a narrative sitcom filmed out of Houston, out of Alief. Alief has been a great neighborhood in the Houston area that has been a phenomenal exporter of art, artists, music, from front of the camera to behind the camera. I think it's just absolutely wild that it has never had a narrative sitcom," he said. "So it was so important to me, like right out of the gate, boom, you're in Houston. Paul Wall's ‘The Peoples Champ' comes on. I thought that was such a great touch. Everything was so well thought-out. And even when I would describe the show to VPs I'd be like, hey, I want it to be like an urban Western. I want the rich golf clouds to be seen. I want the blue skies, the bright sun, the hot sun. I want you to feel that, too."
The show is autobiographical – but not down to every detail, Amer said.
"I can't quantify it in like a percentage, but I can definitely tell you that it's all based off of my life. I can tell you the stuff that's not: I'm not addicted to codeine," Amer laughed. "But it was a great complexity to the character that you can add, write into the show."
Amer said he struggled initially with how the show would be received in his hometown but realized that those worries didn't matter if he trusted the time and effort put into it – and a COVID delay gave him more time than expected.
"It caused me to dig even deeper into myself and go through my own growth," he said. "And so it's pretty incredible to have those opportunities, and it's rare that you can put that much time into something before putting it all together. And in the end, I can't control what people say, you know, like I can't. You gotta trust the work."
Amer, who has two comedy specials on Netflix, noted that while standup is a solo art form, implementing his storytelling into a scripted show has been very different.
"It requires a different type of thinking and thought process. You know, especially with this story, the complexities lie into, for instance, the flashbacks and the origin stories. The emotionality of that and then tracking it in present day," he said. "And then you have like all the other characters that you're surrounding your main character with – what they look like, what they feel like, what they say, how they talk, how they walk. It's like creating a whole world.
"And also, to me, as an Arab American, like man, I've seen too many Arabs on television, they're supposed to be a certain part of the world that sound nothing like it. I want to cast somebody that knows the dialect, speaks it, it's been part of their life. You know, all these things factor into making a great show, a grounded show, an authentic show."