From the snow of Fargo, we now move to the sands of the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Abuddin, where FX’s newest drama series Tyrant is set up to be part Homeland, part Dynasty. In a strong (but still somewhat boilerplate) pilot, Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the young son of the nation’s dictator, returns to Abuddin for his nephew’s wedding, bringing his American family with him after 20 years of self-imposed exile. “Promise me we’ll come back?” he says to his wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) as the family prepares to leave. The fateful words have thus been spoken: ain’t nobody getting out of this. Hit the jump for why “if you’re going to be unbearable, at least be accurate.”
Tyrant made its story clear and its characters broad, but its tone remains in question. For now, amid a background of gorgeous wardrobing and sets, what is known is that “Barry” is about to be forced to revert back to being Bassam after the death of his father, which puts his over-the-top evil brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) in power. Jamal is hot-headed and over-written in the premiere, and obviously set up as a foil for Bassam’s cool-headed nature. And on this deathbed, their father tells Bassam that he should have trained him up to be the leader. In a powerful flashback scene built throughout the episode, we see why. Bassam’s coolness was once ice-cold, as he killed a man as a child in order to get his father’s attention and respect. And it worked, to a degree, but birth order is an important thing in dynasties.
Bassam’s return to Abuddin is fraught with conflict, from trying to quell Jamal’s passions, to wrestling with his own conflicted feelings that are alienating his wife, and causing him to lash out at his children. As Bassam, Rayner is placid and a little too blank, but it also could just be that he is getting his bearings. Soon, he’s going to have to step up, whether he wants to or not. Say goodbye to your pediatrics practice back in Pasadena: a war-torn nation needs your leadership.
Tyrant, whose executive producers include Homeland‘s Howard Gordon (the pilot was directed by David Yates — the show also has pedigree), makes some definite choices about how it might handle this political subplot (or is it the main plot?). There has been some criticism about the show not allowing the characters to speak in a native language when the Americans aren’t around, just like what happens on FX’s other series The Bridge (Spanish) and The Americans (Russian). But for Tyrant, that would leave almost the entire show subtitled. On the other hand, it creates a realism boundary when characters just speak in heavily-accented English to crowds and to each other, instead of in the language that Abuddinians would naturally speak (Abuddin seems based heavily on Syria, not only in relation to ruling families, but even in their choice of flag).
It remains to be seen, then, how Tyrant moves forward with what are currently, very broad characters: Bassam naturally has a revolutionary journalist friend, his children are divided on whether to be impressed or horrified by the luxury they are afforded in Abuddin at the expense of the populace, there are noble freedom fighters and then evil people connected to the dictatorship (mostly in the form of Jamal), but the message here is still jumbled. Will politics become a driving force, or just a current running underneath the family drama?
Tyrant has at least proved in its pilot that it’s well worth finding out. It’s a show that could start an important dialogue, or it could just be a glossy and opulent family drama. Either way, like Bassam, I feel compelled to stay.
Episode Rating: B+
Musings and Miscellanea:
— “If you’re going to be unbearable at least be accurate” – Molly, in a line I am definitely going to be repeating in my own life.
— Not much was set up for daughter Emma (Anne Winters), but as long as she doesn’t become Dana Brody, everything should be fine (just like Molly just needs to just not be Skyler White). Brother Sammy (Noah Silver) is in for a tough time being gay in an extremely homophobic region of the world, so that will be interesting to watch unfold.
— Justin Kirk was a surprising addition to the pilot, but a welcomed one as an American jerk named John Tucker, the U.S. diplomat to Abbudin.
— “Talk to him? Like Oprah? You had a bad childhood, let’s hug it out.” – Jamal, played well by Barhom, but who deserves better material. Two rapes in one episode is a lot to handle …
— Bassam was pretty much a wet blanket on the proceedings, but he has daddy issues, ok?
— Bassam: “I’m a pediatrician.” Fauzi Nadal (Fares Fares): “You’re an Al-Fayeed.” (Which somehow went unnoticed in the States).
— I want to continuing watching and liking this show, so please be good, Tyrant.