Raised by Refugees is a genuine, funny take on growing up in post-9/11 Aotearoa

Comedian Pax Assadi channels his own childhood in new comedy series Raised by Refugeesstream it on Neon from February 25 (also screening on Prime and Sky Go from Thursday February 24). Finding the humour in cultural misunderstandings and turn-of-the-millenium Aotearoa pop culture, it’s social commentary with a genuinely funny take on the era, writes Laumata Lauano.

Comedian Pax Assadi plays his own real-life father in his new comedy Raised By Refugees, about the confusing and sometimes harsh reality of being a part-Pakistani, part-Iranian kid growing up in post-9/11 Aotearoa. One of the first things you need to do is set aside any prior notions of Assadi’s work, mostly because he’ll definitely be reusing jokes from his stand-up comedy set of the same name. Not that that’s a bad thing, but stand-up doesn’t always translate the same way in a TV show format.

You’re better off allowing yourself to enjoy Raised By Refugees for what it is—a genuine and funny take on Assadi’s childhood growing up in Aotearoa in the early 2000s under the guidance of his refugee parents. You may also want to start comparing it to shows like Everybody Hates Chris—but while it wouldn’t exactly be a bad comparison as the formatting of the shows are very similar, they’re focused on different eras and cultures and aimed at very different audiences.

Assadi plays his Iranian father Afnan who, along with his Pakistani wife Safia (Kalyani Nagarajan) and their Kiwi-born sons Pax (Kenus Binu) and Mahan (Adam Lobo), has just moved to Auckland’s North Shore where all—including baba Masood Assadi (Reza Matez)—face challenges in their new community.

The Assadi family were previously in West Auckland but you can already anticipate the “but where did you really come from” questions they’ll most likely encounter. Assadi is no stranger to comedy that doubles as social commentary based on his experiences, and the show is no different. From terrible pronunciations of ethnic names by colleagues and peers to jokes about people making unfair stereotypes about his family being the point of the show, Assadi minces no words as he tells not just his own story, but that of his family.

In the first episode, for instance, young Pax is eager to impress the other kids on his first day at intermediate. His dad Afnan is just as determined to make new friends at his new job in an appliance shop and mum Safia must cook dinner for her judgmental Iranian in-laws.

Part of what works so well is how the family dynamics play out, and the chemistry between the cast. Parents Nagarajan and Assadi work well together but it’s in their interactions with their onscreen sons Pax and Mahan played by Binu and Lobo that we see a bit of magic. Assadi and Binu have good chemistry as father and son and while the cultural divide between the two can be comedic gold, at the drop of a hat their relationship becomes heartfelt and touching. Same can be said for Nagarajan and Binu, there’s a particularly touching moment in the second episode between Pax and his mum that is sure to stir some emotions.

Binu (a relative newcomer) as the young Pax is likeable and has the range to make you cringe as Assadi’s material is intended—puberty is a confusing time but when he starts pretending to be Tongan (if you’ve seen any of Assadi’s shows this won’t come as a surprise) it’s all over. I cannot imagine how Assadi himself managed to pull that one off.

My personal favourite Assadis however are Mahan and baba Masood, individually they’re scene stealers for me. Especially Mahan, the youngest in the household—his job is taking the heat off his older brother while simultaneously bringing his own extra personality to the character. Lobo brings just a little something extra to the role that has me chuckling or laughing whenever he’s on the screen. His one liners are so quotable, from stating he’ll be taking a mental health day to all but blackmailing Pax—the role and writing wouldn’t have done as well without Lobo’s brilliant delivery.

You’ll recognise a few familiar faces and credited names from the New Zealand film and entertainment scene namely Fasitua Amosa, Jono Pryor, Kimberley Crossman and also the directing credits of Madeleine Sami! There are some well known Kiwi talents Assadi has pulled in to make his show something to be remembered.

I can’t say there is much that doesn’t work for me—perhaps Assadi’s teacher, who tries so hard to be culturally sensitive that it ends up having the opposite effect. Or the familiarity of his bullies at school—but I suppose that’s the thing about bullies, they don’t have to be original to be harrowing. Afnan’s co-workers are also slightly one-dimensional but still manage to get a chuckle out of me, especially Afnan’s interactions with the manager’s pyromaniac son. There’s a heavy reliance on humour begotten from cultural misunderstandings but that’s sort of Assadi’s bread and butter, and will be welcomed by his fans.

The show ends up being a genuinely funny take on the early 2000s, and I really do enjoy the various Aotearoa pop culture references from a time when I was also growing up in Auckland. There are some strong performances, solid jokes and moments of genuine emotion in Pax Assadi’s Raised By Refugees and I do think it’s worth a watch. Whether or not six episodes is enough remains to be seen but I look forward to watching the rest of the season.