“Tyrant” is a new series made possible by the combination of a network willing to take chances with a producer/writer/director who understands the Middle East and international intrigue.
The network is FX, which long ago decided that an audience for intelligent TV existed, and you didn’t need Kardashians to goose ratings. There followed a series of smart and occasionally quirky shows such as “Rescue Me,” “Justified,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Louis,” which drew audiences, advertisers and critical raves.
“Tyrant”’s mastermind is Gideon Raff, an Israeli, who created the TV series on which “Homeland” is based. Once again he’s teamed up with Howard Gordon (“24”) to come up with a concept that is smart, tense and brave.
Bassam (Barry) Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) is the son of a dictator of Abbudin, a fictional Arab country. He fled from there two decades ago and built a new life in the United States. Now he’s a California pediatrician with a gorgeous wife and two all-American kids.
When the show opens, he reluctantly returns to Abbudin to attend his nephew’s wedding. From the get-go, there is a sense of foreboding that he and his family won’t make it home. While there, his father, Khaled, dies and his older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), is incapacitated in a car accident. While only the pilot was available for review, it seems clear that Bassam will need to stay there to rule.
The pilot (written by Raff) is smart. Why Bassam left becomes clear in flashbacks. His father was abusive and treated his son no better than he treated his people.
Jamal inherited his father’s talent for evil; Bassam did not. The difference between the two becomes clear early on. Rebels may bomb the wedding, and Jamal wants the rebels arrested and killed. Bassam suggests he invite them and their relatives in order to preclude assassination attempts.
Earlier, I noted that I felt the show was brave. This is a politically correct world, and fatwas have been issued for far less than the portrayal of Arabs in this episode. In the midst of writing this review, an email arrived from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, (CAIR) urging critics “to address stereotyping of Arab and Muslim culture inherent” in the series.
Fear of stereotyping is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. The Anti-Defamation League recently pressured the Metropolitan Opera to cancel a broadcast of “Death of Klinghoffer” to movie theaters around the country — and not because the opera itself was anti-Semitic. Rather, the ADL argued someone might walk away from the opera hating Jews. I thought that rather stupid. Anyone who plunks down $20 to watch an opera and walks away anti-Semitic almost certainly had a head start in that direction before he or she walked in.
The same is true here. This show cannot engender any more anti-Muslim sentiments than newspaper headlines already create.
Certainly Khaled and Jamal are over the top. Any father who puts a revolver in the hands of his reluctant sons and orders them to murder rebels kneeling before them and begging for their lives won’t win daddy-of-the-year honors. Jamal rapes a woman while her husband is forced to stand outside the room, listening to his wife’s screams. He rapes his new daughter-in-law on her wedding night.
Yet CAIR has no counter-argument to the producers’ claims that what they show is a reflection of the real-life brutality of Arab dictators.
Moreover, the show also is in some ways an indictment of American foreign policy. The U.S. Ambassador, Jon Tucker (Justin Kirk) supports the regime — at least, presumably, as long as it supports us.
Certainly there are sympathetic Muslims. Bassam is one. His childhood friend, Fauzi (Fares Fares), a dedicated journalist who reported on the abuses and was arrested and tortured, is another.
But the bottom line is that what CAIR (and I) saw was just the pilot. A pilot is an episode designed to whet the appetite of viewers for what is to come. To get them to tune in to succeeding episodes. And it does that very well.
Producers have assured CAIR that future episodes will be more “nuanced.” That would be nice. Meanwhile, I’m just anxious to see what happens next. Will Western-influenced Bassam have any impact? Will the existing power-structure fight him? Watch the premiere and the chances are you’ll be hooked, too.