Monday, May 29, 2023

TV Review: Egypt or Bust

"Abla Fahita: Drama Queen" on Netflix


Netflix has been trying hard to expand its international footprint, greenlighting shows that will appeal to audiences all over the word. That's one of the reasons American viewers are seeing so many South Korean romances and Indian cop shows popping up on their Netflix queues. (That and the fact that America's increasingly diverse immigrant population rewards non-English programming options.) One of the regions Netflix is eager to get a foothold in is the Middle East. Last year the streaming giant launched its first Egyptian series, the "X-Files"-ish "Paranormal," based on Ahmad Khaled Towfik's 81-novel supernatural book series. (So ... lotsa material for Season 2.) Now Netflix elevates a Middle Eastern cult character to star status with its puppet-centric sitcom "Abla Fahita: Drama Queen."

Abla is a evidently a well-known character in Egypt. The fuzzy-skinned puppet began life around 2011 as the star of a commercial campaign for Egyptian cell phone giant Vodaphone. (Hey, it worked for hayseed neighbor Ernest P. Worrell, who went from Nashville milk commercials to nine movies and a Saturday morning kids' show.) The lazy, gossip-loving widow (and mother of two) soon graduated from commercial spokespuppet to a guest slot on a popular sketch comedy show. She later landed a gig as host of her own TV talk show (shades of Max Headroom) and even produced a hit music video. For someone composed of felt and foam rubber, however, Abla Fahita (loosely, and rather nonsensically, translated as "Auntie Fajita") has generated her fair share of controversy. Her debut outing got her briefly labeled as a terrorist whose TV ads contained coded bombing instructions for the Muslim Brotherhood. (The accusation came from a well-known conspiracy theorist whose claims were quickly dismissed as "irrational.") She was later charged with "indecency" (for posing for a picture holding the novel Fifty Shades of Grey). Evidently, no publicity is bad publicity for a puppet.

"Abla Fahita: Drama Queen" picks up on the controversial popularity of the character and runs with it. In offering the outspoken puppet her first scripted series, Netflix follows the titular character now neck-deep in her pop cultural fame. The desperate housewife has spun her notoriety into headlining a splashy stage musical in which she plays the goddess Isis, lavishly courted by the most famous lovers in the world. But when she forgets to don her crucial costume on opening night, flashing the conservative Egyptian crowd with some full-frontal nudity, her rising star comes crashing down. Some months later, she's stuck back at her Cairo apartment trying (not particularly hard) to be a single mother again to her two children: sarcastic young daughter Caro and infant son Boudi. While Boudi gets doted on, Caro is generally insulted or ignored. Fahita defends her parenting style, insisting she's only toughening her daughter up for life in a rough world. But mostly, she's a self-centered diva far more concerned with extending her 20 minutes of fame.

At the end of her economic rope, Abla agrees to meet with notorious nightclub owner/movie producer/ladies' man Fayez Mango. The oily con man promises to produce a feature film for Abla, but his onerous contract traps her into weekly performances at his belly dance bar. Abla refuses, and following a mysterious blackout, she finds herself standing over the dead body of the wannabe gangster. Framed for Mango's murder, Abla must go on the lam in order to clear her good(?) name.

Clearly aimed at adults, this satirical six-episode sitcom shares more than a few strands of DNA with Jim Henson's Muppets. Abla and her family are the only actual puppets on display, yet no one seems to act like our protagonist looks any different from anyone else. There are a few mildly randy jokes along the way, but the innuendo rarely pushes past the PG-13 level. It's not quite the wacky, third-wall-breaking anarchy The Muppets are capable of. But "Abla Fahita" does present a madcap, breathlessly paced comedy of errors.

Undoubtedly, there are carloads of cultural references and in-jokes that will be read only by Egyptians. But the show's plot and general sense of humor—most of it derived from Abla's self-centered ego—translates well. While mom is off trying to solve a murder, underage daughter Caro finds herself abandoned back at the nightclub and is forced to work as a cocktail waitress to keep her and her brother afloat. Interestingly, "Abla Fahita" gives decent screentime to its supporting characters, allowing them (daughter Caro in particular) their own funny and slightly dramatic journeys. Though Abla herself isn't going to win any "Mother of the Year" trophies, she's no Mommy Dearest. Her vanity and obliviousness are played for laughs, and her kids are in no real danger from the show's string of would-be villains. Caro even gets her own show-stopping musical number. And in the end, everybody learns a lesson (well, kinda).

Perhaps due in part to Netflix's investment, "Abla Fahita" is eye-catching and well-mounted. This is a lavish production, with bright colors and shimmering costumes. (Not even Miss Piggy got to strut around in Louboutins.) So, if you're in the mood for a ridiculous-but-straight-faced sitcom about a self-serving puppet from Egypt, "Abla Fahita" is exactly what you're looking for.

BOX: Season 1 of "Abla Fahita: Drama Queen" is available now for streaming on Netflix.


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