[This is a review of the Tyrant series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Almost as much has been made about Tyrant being The Godfather of the Middle East, as has been made about the series’ very rocky road from inception to a finished pilot that convinced FX this was a series worth investing in. After all the creative shakeups, the departures of director Ang Lee and creator Gideon Raff, and the re-shoots that were still reportedly necessary even though another director from the world of film – in this case, David Yates – took the helm, the suggestion was this must be quite the special series if, after so much trouble, the powers that be would fight to keep it alive. The trouble is, then, after having seen the series premiere, it’s difficult to ascertain what, exactly had captivated them so much.
The story concerns Bassam Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) – although he goes by Barry – the second son of a Middle Eastern dictator in the fictional country of Abbudin. And while the main thrust of the narrative sees Barry returning to his native country after 20 years of what is quickly established to be a sort of self-imposed exile from his family, the story doesn’t just feel like a deliberate homage to The Godfather; it feels like an uninspired mash-up of several prominent television tropes from the last 15 years or so.
Barry has deliberately distanced himself from his father, brother, and mother, but, like all complicated men on television these days, he’s reticent to share his reasoning with his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), even though he responds to her prodding as to why he is reluctant to return home by saying, “They’re not my family. You’re my family.” Which is an awful nice thing for Barry to say to his wife, but as the story progresses, it is unclear whether he actually thinks that or if he’s just placating her because he’s afraid of who he really is. That’s a potentially interesting wrinkle in the character, but this “man who can’t trust himself, so he lies to himself and his family” routine doesn’t play out as anything that hasn’t been seen countless times before. Furthermore, this early on, the routine only reduces Barry to a completely flat character, rather than an enigma whose future is set to emerge and become incredibly complicated due to an unprecedented string of coincidences that erupt over the course of his brief return home.
Of course, that particular home is the key component to Tyrant’s potential appeal but it could also turn out to be its biggest obstacle in terms of selling the series to American audiences. And in attempting to mitigate those concerns, Howard Gordon and his crew may have opened the series up to some key issues of concern. For one, despite this being the tale of a Middle Eastern dictatorship, Adam Rayner, a white, English actor, has been cast in the lead role. Despite the addition of Alice Krige as Barry’s mother, the decision is bound to stir up plenty of negative press (deservedly so). To make matters worse, the decision to cast Rayner is, as yet, not offset by a truly compelling or wildly successful performance on his part. Similarly, and perhaps more concerning, is the fact that the characters are all speaking English all the time. While on one hand this can be overlooked from an ease of storytelling point of view (the audience can just take it at face value that it is assumed the characters are not speaking English in certain instances), the show’s choice to eschew the use of subtitles reads rather disingenuous in terms of creating an authentic sense of place for its narrative to be set in – fictional though it may be.
The dialogue isn’t the only issue at hand in terms of the show’s struggles to create a true sense of what Abbudin is all about. Even though Tyrant is aiming for storylines that are fresh in the public’s memory – e.g., Iran, Iraq, and more recently Syria – the location, as it is presented in the pilot, comes off feeling very generic and too reliant on stereotype. Furthermore, none of the American characters seem at all concerned they’re traveling to an unstable region run by a dictator. It is an area of the world where terrorists are threatening to attack the wedding of Barry’s nephew and yet Barry’s wife and kids, Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Anne Winters) respond to their trip abroad as if they’re traveling to some exotic resort where they’ll be regarded as VIPs. There is zero discussion of the potential dangers inherent in visiting such a destination – not to mention the fact that Barry’s father is a dictator. That level of disconnect, the failure of the characters to respond realistically (or at all) to their changed environment, offers a dramatic setback in terms of the significance of what is clearly about to happen to Barry, and how the series would like you to feel about that change.
All of this says nothing of how stock most of the characters manage to come across. Sammy and Emma continue Howard Gordon’s longstanding tradition of making teenagers stand out by bestowing upon them the most repugnant personalities possible – as though the only way to make a young person interesting is through their irrepressible desire to be insolent, sulky, or arrogant (sometimes all at once). But the characters in Abbudin are scarcely any better. And although his performance brings some much-needed energy to the proceedings, Barry’s brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) mostly resembles a heavy-handed homage to Sonny Corleone mixed with Uday Hussein – or at least Dominic Cooper‘s rendition of him in The Devil’s Double.
Meanwhile, Barry’s father, Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris) barely makes an appearance at all and his death at the end of the pilot reduces his future contributions to the flashbacks of young Bassam. Through that flashback the pilot is offered a late twist that, if developed properly, could offer Barry’s character the kind of depth he desperately needs. And yet the reveal that a very young Barry executed a man without his father telling him to do so, and that he’s spent the past two decades running from the man he may truly be, boils down to yet another too familiar characterization: The depiction of a difficult man who is keeping things from those close to him, which primarily means his unsuspecting wife.
This depiction of difficult men feels so familiar that even the radically different setting does little to make it feel remotely fresh. The script gets so tied up in explaining its characters through tropes there’s no sense to how they actually see themselves. That’s most evident when Barry suddenly turns into Ray Donovan and tells his wife, “The reason Jamal is so broken is because my father broke him.” That’s a fairly perfunctory explanation of a individual who bullies, slices, and rapes his way through the pilot episode.
All of this adds up to the question of what does Tyrant want to be? Is it about the role of politics in a conflict-ridden region? Is it about morality and the lure of absolute power? Or is it about a toxic family and the conflict that emerges from a need to be loyal? It could prove to be any or all of the above. And as the series progresses, there’s hope that it does those things but does them far better than it did in the pilot, because, as it stands now, it feels like Jamal may not be all that’s broken with this series.
Tyrant continues next Tuesday with ‘State of Emergency’ on FX @10pm.
Photos: Patrick Harbron/FX
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