[This is a review of the Tyrant season 3 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
FX’s Tyrant is a little like AMC’s Hell on Wheels in that each new season of the respective series comes and goes with little in the way of pomp or circumstance. Each program is remarkable for its unexpected longevity first, while the importance of the narratives they produce comes in a distant second – or considering the controversy over some of the casting decisions on Tyrant, third. Nevertheless, both series have their fan bases that help keep them going even though the larger television-watching population might not notice if either were to suddenly vanish mid-season.
What’s surprising about Tyrant, though, is that while Hell on Wheels is deliberately a sort of meandering tale about a laconic gunslinger in the American West, FX’s Middle Eastern family/political drama is, or should be, anyway, a far more dynamic and energetic show than it is. After all, this was the series once likened to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, but set within the potentially fascinating cultural confines of the fictional Arab nation of Abbudin. And yet, after two seasons, it seems as though the series has struggled to not only pay off that promise, but also to find the right path on which its story might unfold. As a result, the series has moved forward in fits and spurts, only to double back and revisit the same basic premise over ad over again.
Last season, the series spent time outside the confines of the Al-Fayeed palace, positioning the usurper Barry (Adam Rayner) as part of the forces fighting against his brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), while his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and their two children Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Anne Winters) presumed their father was dead. On one hand, this storyline felt like the sort of shake-up the series needed after season 1 failed to deliver The Godfather, much less The Godfather III. On the other hand, Barry fighting his way back to the position he was ostensibly in at the beginning of the series was one of the more transparent examples of wheel spinning in the series. For the season to end with Jamal reneging on his promise to relinquish power before becoming the victim of an assassination attempt by Nusrat (Sibylla Deen), the daughter-in-law he sexually assaulted in the series premiere, also felt familiar in terms of the overarching story’s intent, if not its exact details.
That leaves season 3 in the position to offer a series that never really got off the ground an opportunity at a fresh start of sorts. This basically means Tyrant finds itself back at the beginning. Once again, the show sees Barry as the next in line to take Abbudin down a path towards democracy or as the man who, like his brother before him, will be forever altered by the power at his fingertips. While such an exploration of the corruptive nature of power might be the most interesting use of the show’s time – and of the still unconvincing lead – Tyrant shifts its focus again and again, positioning characters other than Barry as the titular tyrant and therefore giving Barry less and less agency in a storyline that, after three remarkably similar season premieres now, has begun to feel as though it will never be able to move past resetting to a default question of: Who is the tyrant? So with Jamal laid out after a severe case of lead poisoning, the door is open for Tyrant to move past its first major obstacle and to see what lies beyond the trouble with Jamal.
As the title of the season premiere would suggest, change in the air during the early part of ‘Spring.’ This being the show that it is, however, change – even the idea of it – doesn’t stick around for very long. After the dust surrounding the attempt on Jamal’s life and Barry’s ascension to the presidency has settled, the series begins to shift away from the promise of a new beginning; it settles back into a familiar routine and a sense that the status quo hasn’t been left behind, merely set off to the side for the better part of an hour. ‘Spring’ impresses with how quickly it manages to restore order to all the supposed upheaval that occurs in the wake of the season 2 finale. Unfortunately, it sweeps the key ingredient of any good drama (i.e., conflict) under the rug in favor of taking Jamal’s wife, Leila (Moran Atias), and his son Ahmed (Cameron Gharaee) and placing them in a position of potential conflict. Both aspire to power in Abbudin, but only one has a legitimate chance at attaining it now that the country is, once again, about to hold a democratic election.
When Leila and Ahmed are whisked away by the military along with Nusrat, before Barry takes office, it reads like a series preparing to clean house. Before the hour is up, though, Nusrat is murdered in her cell by Leila’s confidant for the purpose of manipulating Ahmed, and shortly after the two are freed and given what amounts to a pat on the wrist for their involvement in Jamal’s brutal regime. It all ends up being a massive, inelegant up and back that doesn’t allow for the series’ characters or their plots to deviate much from where they were when the series first began. Sure, Barry’s in a new position, but putting a new title on things doesn’t change the fact that he’s still the same guy; his time in the desert and his near-death experience at his brother’s own hand hasn’t altered him in any demonstrative or truly interesting way.
In the end, Tyrant is guilty of committing the same sort of storytelling sin so many other serialized dramas do: it wants to keep spinning the same story over and over again in an attempt to drum up tension for a conclusion that will only come when the series ends. There’s only one story here, and while the show brings in new characters like Chris Noth’s violin-playing Gen. Cogswell to stir things up a bit, the degree to which those things will actually be stirred is already debatable. Hopefully, this will be the season the Tyrant moves into more captivating storytelling, but with so many of the same players still on the board, it does not look promising. The show can probably keep spinning this same story in circles for another season, but by then, even the desire to see it move past that point and into more interesting territory will have passed.
Tyrant continues next Wednesday with ‘Cockroach’ @10pm on FX.