[This is a review for Tyrant season 1, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
It can be difficult to watch a show with clear ambitions ultimately be hamstrung by its own artlessness, but apparently that's where things stand with regard to Tyrant. What was billed as The Godfather set in the Middle East has turned into a narrative slog where the dramatic distance between the protagonist and his semi-despotic family has so far been as conspicuous as the actor's ethnicity. As such, the show has only managed to highlight all the things it has yet to achieve.
And that's the main problem with Tyrant so far: it's a story that requires every facet of the show to be all-in, and yet it feels like the series doesn't even want to go moderately in on anything. With Barry's potential corruption hanging over the show's entire conceit, the character has yet to even dip his toe in even the shadiest of waters.
It's completely understandable that the series wants to show Barry as a wide-eyed idealist, who honestly believes that if the warring factions of Abbudin could just sit down at the table and talk things out everything would be okay. It is also understandable that this will usher in a gradual change that finds him at odds with all that he believes – even about himself.
But so far, there's been no hint of malice or corruptibility whatsoever in the character or in Adam Rayner's performance, so how abrupt of a turn is the show planning on making? And is it even planning on making that turn at all? If not, then what is this show ultimately about?
There's one brief moment in 'What the World Needs Now' where Jamal watches Sheik Rashid talk about his little brother in a 60 Minutes interview that finally sheds some light on what might ultimately be at stake within the Al-Fayeed family and, therefore, Tyrant itself. But the fact that it comes after the halfway mark of season 1 is definitely not a good sign.
The Sheik is clearly trying to get a rise out of Jamal, now that the president of Abbudin is his political opponent. And by repeatedly stating that the "brains" behind the government is the president's younger brother, who has been back in the country for all of 10 minutes, there's definitely some brotherly friction on the horizon.
That friction is compounded by the fact that Jamal has agreed to hold an open election based on a single, hasty conversation with Barry, which came with the tentative promise that by building schools and hospitals, President Jamal Al-Fayeed will eventually know the love of the people who currently see him as their oppressor.
Obviously, things don't work out, but instead of there being an actual confrontation between Jamal and Barry, the episode has Rayner explain how polling numbers work while trying to pacify his brother with jokes about the sheik's "milky eye."
Although the specifics are different, these are familiar story beats. Tyrant has been sticking to the same formula of Barry tells Jamal what to do; Jamal does what Barry tells him to, and then freaks out about it; Barry then placates his brother with an eighth grade civics lesson or by arguing semantics. It would be one thing to stick with a formula that brought compelling stories to the table, but this procedure isn't building much more than impatience.
Still, there are a few bright spots. In just two episodes, Mohammad Bakri's Sheik Rashid has managed to bring some life into the show, and take some of the load off Ashraf Barhom, who seems to be the only one enjoying himself – which he proves by doing wonders with the line, "I think I am lovable, too."
Barhom is clearly onboard with painting Jamal as a hilariously self-deluded man, desperate for some positive reinforcement, and for a short time during the episode, it works. At least up until Jamal winds up killing Sheik Rashid in a jealous rage that may have as much to do with Barry's growing recognition as it does the sheik's enduring popularity.
With Sheik Rashid's death, there is almost certainly some conflict on the horizon. Whether it is between Jamal's government and the people of Abbudin, Jamal and his brother, or both, it doesn’t really matter. At this point, Tyrant needs someone to act in order to get things going.
Tyrant continues next Tuesday with 'Preventative Medicine' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Vered Adir/FX