It’s not a good sign that most of the conflicts in Tyrant could be averted by a few people getting on a plane. The series tries to point this out at several occasions, but the reasoning for why the characters at the show’s center don’t simply stand up and leave the country they’re in grows more and more specious the longer the show goes on, particularly by episode four. It’s as if nobody sat down and thought about how ridiculous this story is before presenting it as a very serious tale.
But that’s sort of the way it goes with Tyrant. There’s been considerable fear and concern that the show would only prop up unfair stereotypes of Muslims and Middle Eastern countries—and it certainly does its fair share of that—but the real fear here should have been that the show would be largely nonsensical and boring. And despite some strong production elements, that’s pretty much what it is.
First, the good news: Tyrant has an intriguing premise, and it gets a little better with each of the four episodes FX sent to critics (though none of these work their way into the category of riveting television). At its center is the story of an American immigrant, Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the younger son of the president and dictator of fictional Middle Eastern country Abbudin. When Bassam returns to Abbudin for a wedding, he is reconnected with his father and older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), and he’s mostly reminded why he left the place. Meanwhile, his very American wife and children marvel at the opulence and riches of the family palace—while missing the oppressed thousands who must suffer so the Al-Fayeeds can have their luxuries. By the end of the pilot, it seems unlikely that Bassam and his family will be able to return to the United States any time soon, a prospect that suggests opportunity to use Bassam’s influence to help Abbudin secularize on the one hand and the terror of how quickly things could head south on the other.
Now, the problem with all of this is fairly simple: For a show like this to work, the American family has to be more than a bunch of fish out of water, or worse, the “eyes into this world” for the typical American viewer. That’s insulting both to the audience and to the residents of any overseas country Americans might consider appreciably “exotic.” But the Al-Fayeeds don’t even rise to either of those levels. Instead, they’re actively obnoxious, with the two kids constantly whining and wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) taking almost every opportunity she can to ask Bassam why he doesn’t tell her about his past, when the very fact that the family is in a Middle Eastern dictatorship should be doing most of the work for her. Some of this—notably the Molly character—gets a little tweaking the deeper the show gets into its run, but it’s never enough to wash away the bad taste the characters offer in Gideon Raff’s pilot script.
It’s also never clear why Rayner is the center of this show. Though he’s not a bad actor by any means, Bassam needs someone magnetic playing him, and that’s not really Rayner’s thing. (He is, instead, quietly brooding.) Bassam is mixed-race—his mother is British, while his father is Arabic—so there’s at least flimsy rationale for this being yet another dark cable drama series centered on a white dude. But Rayner is such a bland presence at the show’s center that it’s never clear why the show went with him instead of anybody else, particularly an actor of Arabic descent, who at least would have been something different from every other show on cable. The series has come in for preemptive concerns about its treatment of Muslims, particularly thanks to having 24’s and Homeland’s Howard Gordon in the showrunner role. While that’s never as big of a problem as it could be—the show’s Arabic characters are mostly multi-faceted (and far more interesting than Bassam’s family)—it’s certainly not helped by having Rayner in the spotlight, instead of a non-white actor.
These problems are only compounded by the fact that essentially every character on the show who’s not Bassam or part of his family would make a more compelling protagonist for the series. By the end of episode four, it’s obvious that the central story of the show isn’t the journey of Bassam: It’s about another character entirely, and Bassam is there to provide viewers with a more “relatable” lens through which to view this particular story. Barhom is more interesting as Jamal, the son who resents the prodigal for returning but tries to play it off as being glad to see him again. Moran Atias is more interesting as Leila, Jamal’s wife, trying to carve out an existence as a woman in a country that doesn’t have a stellar record with such issues. (The pilot is far too cavalier about throwing around sexual assault as a plot point, even if it’s trying to make a point about women’s rights in Middle Eastern nations. Fortunately, later episodes pull back from this, but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.) Justin Kirk is more interesting as John Tucker, a U.S. diplomat trying to play various Abbudin factions off of each other. Fares Fares is definitely more interesting as Fauzi, Bassam’s childhood friend, now a reporter trying to bring human rights abuses to light.
Deep down, Tyrant wants to be about the seductive power of evil, about the way that even people who believe themselves to be good can be swayed by their darker natures if the darkness is tempting enough. But Tyrant is so careful to make evil look evil that it forgets to make it look exciting or fun. Instead, it takes on all the urgency of a position paper, wandering around and having characters extol things about the Middle East and human rights abuses in said countries. It occasionally tries to juice things with melodrama, but its heart is rarely in it—and when, say, characters slap each other, it ends up feeling like it’s coming out of nowhere, a bit of tawdry business in between all of the discussion about how bad things are bad. The show is simply too careful—perhaps because it doesn’t want to stereotype the characters its story is about—to really get into the rush of being very, very bad.
Creator Raff took as his inspiration the film The Godfather and the reign of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, whose education in the West made many hope he would be a better ruler of that nation—before he turned into just as brutal of a dictator as any. What Raff misses about both is the way that evil can seem, at many times, like the only good option one has available—how much evil is both about the sheer release of being able to do whatever one wants and about the pragmatism of following a particular course to its logical, bloody end. There’s a good show buried within Tyrant, one that occasionally emerges in the first four episodes, when it focuses on the relationship between Bassam and Jamal, or turns its eye toward Fauzi’s struggles, or even just takes time to observe two mural painters attempting to get by in their day-to-day lives. But it’s too often subsumed by the show’s desire to make a grand statement and its inability to realize that often gets in the way of just telling a compelling story.