FX's Divisive 'Tyrant' Still Talking With Muslim Groups

Executive producer Howard Gordon attends TCA with policy experts to shed more light on the ongoing dialogue surrounding the show's portrayal of the Middle East and the depiction of sexual abuse in the pilot.

One month into its run, Tyrant was trotted out by FX for a second visit with the Television Critics Association — after many of its members gave the drama a cool reception for both the pilot episode’s treatment of female characters and its depiction of the Middle East.

Executive producer Howard Gordon, joined onstage by five experts in Arab and Muslim relations and policy, took the opportunity to discuss the rather unorthodox dialogue surrounding the project. A panel intimately acquainted with the Middle East was part of a focus group for the pilot, and edits based on the group’s feedback continue to find their way into the series as it readies the final two episodes of the season. (The remaining episodes will be filmed in Turkey, with production displaced from Israel due to the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.)

COVER STORY Turmoil on 'Tyrant'

"We’ve been the beneficiaries of this dialogue,” said Gordon. "And I suspect it’s only the beginning of how fruitful that can be. This was just really good for us…and good for us as storytellers.”

All parties onstage seemed interested in showing more of what younger people are doing to fight back in countries ruled by real-life tyrants. "After reading the reviews, I expected [the show] was going to be horrendous,” said Tahrir Institute of Middle East Policy assistant director Ramy Yaacoub, who first screened it in April. "Honestly, a lot of things that Howard and his team have promised to fix, they have. I want to see the real agents of change in the Middle East."

With the seventh and eighth episodes of Tyrant still in postproduction, and most critics only screening one episode before reviews came out, the long play of the story is something that some in the group pointed to as an obstacle for many viewers.

"There was a lot of negative press [initially] because much of the story hadn’t unfolded,” said Muslims on Screen and Television co-director Michael Wolfe, "and I think maybe that’s still true.”

On the subject of violence against women — there are three acts of sexual abuse in the pilot episode — the group remained more divided. The Iraqi Cultural Center's Aseel Albanna said she was surprised to see one rape scene appear in the final cut of the pilot that was not in the version she screened.

"The thing that struck me most was [three Arab women]. Where are these characters going?” added Albanna. "To [Howard’s] credit and to the writers' credit, they are elevating these characters to show the strength of Arab women. I think the characters are pretty well portrayed.”
President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council Salam Al-Marayati, who did not serve on the show in any formal capacity other than as a friend of Gordon's, summed it up thus: "I think any show that deals with tyranny in the Middle East, if it can humanize the struggle against tyranny, in the end, it will be good.”