Masameer County was supposed to be Saudi Arabia’s big break in the comedy world. The online cartoon, similar in tone to South Park and Family Guy , had been growing in popularity as the kingdom was undergoing social reforms. When Netflix picked up Masameer County in 2021, it quickly topped the viewership charts in Saudi Arabia.

And you didn’t have to be Saudi to enjoy it. The citizens of Masameer, a fictional Saudi metropolis, suffer from the same everyday problems as the rest of us: annoying viral trends, spoiled nepo babies, obsessive online nerds, pandemic-induced social isolation, and badly run delivery apps. Saudi citizens, it turns out, live and laugh like the rest of us.

But the Saudi authorities aren’t laughing along. In a now-deleted YouTube video, Masameer County producer Abdulaziz Al Muzaini said that he had been sentenced to 13 years in prison and a 13-year travel ban due to the show, according to Middle East Eye , a London-based news outlet. Authorities pressed charges back in 2021, and the case is now being appealed to the Saudi Supreme Court, the comedian claimed.

According to Muzaini’s original video, he has been charged with promoting homosexuality and terrorism. Both charges are favorites of Middle Eastern censors and the latter rests on a pretty egregious misunderstanding of satire.

In the first episode of the first season of Masameer County , a pampered rich man named Bandar doesn’t know how to go outside and buy ice cream. Lured by the promise of eating all the ice cream he wants in heaven, Bandar joins the Islamic State, then gets chased out for stealing ice cream from the caliph’s harem. In the end, Bandar is rescued by an American spywho reveals himself to be a double agent for Al Qaeda. “War is a scam,” the spy says, giving the middle finger and brandishing a suicide vest. Bandar wakes up in the hospital with a bowl of ice cream.

Two episodes later , the Islamic State makes a reappearance. After getting fired from his delivery job, the lazy bachelor Saltooh finds a new job as a mall cop in an underwear store. His paranoid boss explains that underwear guards must remain ever vigilant, because the Islamic State had attacked the mall several years ago for selling rainbow underpants. When a group of mafia thugs shows up to threaten Saltooh over a delivery mishap, Saltooh’s boss thinks the terrorists are back and destroys the mall with a machine gun.

That episode also features one of the most eyebrow-raising scenes in the season. Saltooh’s landlord Saad wakes him up from a nap by caressing Saltooh’s face and calling him pet names. “Get up, Habibi, we got you a job,” he says. Saltooh jolts awake and says that he’s not wearing any underwear. “It’s okay. Neither am I,” Saad says seductively. Only 20 seconds long, that segment attracted attention for pushing the envelope in Saudi society.

Still, there was no outward sign that the authorities were bothered. Arab News , owned by the Saudi royal family, ran puff pieces about Masameer County . Muzaini and his artistic partner Malik Nejer got to make a second Netflix season of Masameer County and a full-length live-action comedy movie . There was even a Masameer-themed ride at Boulevard City, a posh entertainment complex in downtown Riyadh.

Soon after the first Netflix season, however, authorities had begun secret legal proceedings against its creator. In Muzaini’s telling, the case is the result of bureaucratic score-settling by one Saudi media regulator. “It seems he has found, through me, a person he can exert his authority over,” Muzaini said.

After deleting the video announcing his sentence, Muzaini posted another video praising Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s anti-corruption initiatives. Then he reposted a patriotic Saudi meme and a statement from Royal Adviser Turki Al Sheikh celebrating the Saudi film industry.

The Saudi government has sentenced citizens to decades in prison, and even death, over social media posts. While there have been some small signs of liberalization in recent years, Muzaini’s situation is a reminder that such progress can be undone at any time.