Of Tyrant’s many, many weaknesses, the most crippling to its dreams of prestige cable drama success is its lead. Adam Rayner is simply a nonentity at the center of the show. The guarded conflict perpetually nesting on his character’s face plays as unfortunate blankness. Rayner’s casting came late in the series’ production, as producers searched for just the right actor to portray Bassam/Barry Al-Fayeed, an Americanized son of a Middle Eastern dictator wrestling with his fate upon the death of his father. There’s been understandable controversy about the casting of a white actor in the role—as well there should be—but it’s a wonder why they went with Rayner after all that, a soft-spoken Brit with a suntan. Having not seen any of Rayner’s other work (he was in a Doctor Who episode I saw, but I can’t remember him), I don’t suggest Rayner’s untalented. But I do maintain that, in Tyrant, he’s entirely wrong for his role.
Barry’s conceived to be closed off and reluctant to show emotion at the start of his character’s journey—fine. But if, as the creators suggest, Barry’s supposed to be this Godfather-inspired show’s Michael Corleone, they’re either missing that Michael was willing to be drawn back into his family’s violent world, or Rayner’s unable to suggest it. Either way, the character is a blank spot in the middle of things, and Tyrant is left to limp along on the strength of its simplistic (bordering on offensive) politics and sensational (bordering on lurid) action.
Take tonight’s second episode “State Of Emergency,” where Barry—forced to remain in the fictional Abbudin after the Lamborghini, hypodermic, and penis-bite assassination attempt on his brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom)—inserts himself back into his family’s business after his newlywed niece Nusrat (Sibylla Deen) is kidnapped by some preteen terrorists. Browbeaten into negotiating with the kidnappers by his steely British mom (Alice Krige) and not-to-be-trusted American ambassador John Tucker (Justin Kirk), Barry stands up to his trigger-happy general uncle Tariq (Raad Rawl) who wants to storm the place and kill everyone. (Tariq’s “Terrorists start young here. Like gymnasts” is some typically clunky Tyrant dialogue.) Throughout, Rayner’s Barry signals his conflicted emotions by rubbing his beard, hanging his head, and speaking in a soft, affectless tone. Oh, and sighing—Barry sighs a lot. It’s a given that Barry’s journey back to the throne will involve many such anguished compromises before he finally embraces the powerful role his father always intended, and that Rayner is pitching the character low so that his rise will be more affecting when it comes. (It’s like beginning the “Star-Spangled Banner” in your lowest register, knowing how bananas the song gets by the end.) But Tyrant has started Barry out in such a bland, uninteresting note in these first two episodes, he’s almost inaudible. When he introduces himself to the frightened kids with, “I’m Barry—I’m Bassam Al-Fayed,” it reads less like the first step in Barry reclaiming his birthright and more like he forgot his own name for a second. Even when Tariq executes the boys despite Barry’s successful negotiation, Rayner’s response is to let Barry’s jaw twitch. Just a little.
The kidnapping plot itself continues the pilot’s reliance on violence against women as drama. And although the youth of Nusrat’s assailants makes the whole scene less unseemly than FX’s commercials made it appear, the image of the terrified girl handcuffed with her exposed brassiere gratuitously hanging out reveals where Tyrant’s head remains on the exploitation front. Poor Nusrat, after new father-in-law Jamal violated her to test her virginity on her wedding night (yesterday!), is first seen waiting blithely at the hospital for news on Jamal’s surgery (his penis appears to have survived the assassin’s dick-chomp, unfortunately for the women of Abbudin). And then she’s immediately kidnapped, chained up, breasts exposed, and trying to negotiate her release by asking her pubescent captor, “You’ve never seen a woman’s breasts before, have you?” Granted, she’s appealing to the kid’s future and not trying to seduce the little guy, but for a show trying to establish an epic tale of political intrigue and family drama, the trashiness of this plotline suggests how sophisticated Tyrant is going to be in its storytelling.
Meanwhile, we get more flashbacks about Barry’s life in Abbudin before he fled to America, revisiting the time young Bassam assassinated a prisoner in order to get his dictator father to leave the young Jamal alone. It’s still a shocking act (although it becomes less so every time Tyrant returns to it), marking Bassam as a mysterious, forceful figure from childhood, but the blank-eyed stare that is eerie in young Bassam (Housini Abour) translates as bland and dull in the adult Barry. Maybe young Bassam’s act was an indicator that the dictator’s son had a prescient understanding of the realities of his place in Abbudin, but if so, adult Barry, in the person of Rayner, can’t convey anything but the blankness.
Without a strong center, Tyrant’s setting should provide at least some color to the proceedings, but the show’s fictional Abbudin remains as generic a Middle Eastern hotspot as can be. Even the creators’ previous series Homeland and 24 managed to cram in a little authenticity alongside the questionable politics, but Abbudin, for all its Moroccan and Israeli locations, continues to look like a nondescript backlot. It certainly doesn’t help that the show is sticking with the whole “everyone speaks English with a clipped foreign accent” conceit. I suppose it’s harder to sell a series with subtitles, but the complete lack of a defining culture or language in Abbudin keeps sucking the life out of the place. (At one point, the recuperating Jamal inexplicably yells at his doctor to “speak English,” rather than use her complicated medical terms.) The show seems to be scrupulously avoiding written language of any kind, but you can still catch snatches of Arabic signage here and there, which only points out the compromises Tyrant has made.
Only Barhom (an Arabic speaker) continues to emerge from the verbal muddle with any energy—Jamal’s heartfelt eulogy for his father to end the episode manages to wring some authentic emotion even from the indifferent dialogue. By sheer force of will, Barhom continues making the Jamal the (far more) interesting of the two Al-Fayeed brothers. The sense that elder brother Jamal was forced by tradition into becoming the brutal, self-despising, rapist because he was ill-suited to the role of dictator is an iffy premise, to be sure. But when Barhom cedes the screen to Rayner’s Barry, Tyrant’s entertainment value flees with him.
- Rayner’s not getting much help from Barry’s dialogue, which continues to make him seem diffident and recessive. Some prime Barry: “Help him start running the country or something—I don’t know, it’s crazy.” “It’s hard for me to be here.” “You don’t know this place, Mol. It’s not like back home.” “I’m around if you need me.” “What would you think if I hung around for a while?”
- As troublesome as events are to their marriage, Jennifer Finnigan’s Molly remains Barry’s perfect match, her post-hostage situation commiseration (“You did everything you could”) sounding like she’s consoling him over losing the big softball game.
- Similarly, as Barry gets caught up in Jamal’s moving eulogy, Molly deflates the mood with a clueless, “Are you okay?”
- While her character doesn’t make much sense in the scheme of things so far, Alice Krige manages to give her lines to Barry some bite. “How dare you. You can’t pay respects to a man you disrespected your whole life.” “It must be nice to absolve yourself of all responsibility.”
- The Al-Fayeed kids remain superfluous. This week: they do some skeet shooting and Sammy continues his flirtation with handsome aide Abdul.
- The political situation in Abbudin sees Alexander Karim’s Ihab running guns with the help of the daughter of Barry’s journalist friend Fauzi. More information as it becomes interesting.
- Doctor, looking at the x-ray of Jamal’s mangled penis, “What did he do to make her so angry?”
- As promised, the actress who played Jamal’s excessively abused, unnamed mistress/victim in the pilot was Hadar Ratzon Rotem. She was in creator Gideon Raff’s Prisoners Of War (the basis for Homeland). Here’s to her getting some better roles.