FX's 'Tyrant': What the Critics Are Saying

Tyrant, premiering Tuesday night on FX, brings the Godfather plot to the Middle East.

The Arab drama centers on Bassam Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), a Pasadena-based pediatrician who escaped his past and lives with his America wife (Jennifer Finnigan) and children (Anne Winters and Noah Silver) as Barry. That past, the pilot episode reveals, entails a Middle East upbringing in which he’s the youngest son of Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris), the dictator of fictional nation Abbudin. When Barry returns, accompanied by his family, for the first time in 20 years, he’s thrown back into the familial and national politics of his youth.

Off-screen, Tyant has its own tumultuous back-story (thoroughly documented by Lacey Rose in her THR cover story), with a string of writers, directors and even creator Gideon Raff no longer involved with the highly sought-after project. At the helm is 24 and Homeland executive producer Howard Gordon, who is weaving a complex narrative—and attempting to navigate a sea of potentially controversial topics and negative Muslim stereotypes in that process.  

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Read what top critics are saying about Tyrant:

The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman says in his review that "the pilot is strong and entertaining but not immediately a knockout punch ... but that first episode ends in a place that will make viewers want to tune in the following week to see where it goes. And where Tyrant goes will be crucial — because while the storyline seems rather clear, the pilot doesn’t establish a tone and a direction that’s immediately identifiable ... it’s certainly provocative and complex, particularly given its ambition and scope, not to mention the foreign location and politically-charged backdrop for the Godfather-style premise."

Of the cast, he notes that "Rayner, a little-known actor, is a real find and excellently conveys the conflict of going back home (the writers and Gordon also do a fine job of telling his personality-shaping development through flashbacks). Finnigan is pretty great in most everything she does ... although we get just a small taste of Justin Kirk in the pilot as a U.S. diplomat, his presence here is welcome." Still, in watching only the pilot, Tyrant has its flaws. "Despite Barhom’s magnetic presence as Jamal, the character is written needlessly over the top in the pilot — to the point of maddening distraction ... it’s too early to give a definitive endorsement to Tyrant, despite its potential."

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The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley notes that it is "well made and enjoyable, but the fish-out-of-water subplot is the show’s weak spot. Barry’s wife and children are supposed to be foils, innocents abroad who serve as the viewer’s avatar in an unfamiliar, despotic world. But their naïveté is stranger than the country’s mysteries." While subsequent episodes are "a little less expository, and more action-driven" than the pilot, the series is still "a sophisticated thriller that oversimplifies its characters and narrative ... Tyrant tries so hard to make audiences comfortable with its foreign setting that the story becomes a little too familiar."

USA Today's Robert Bianco gives the series three stars out of four, as it is simultaneously "so intriguing — and so troubling." Still, "too many things that happen in tonight's premiere seem to stem not from character but from the need to generate enough storylines and conflict to sustain a series ... The larger problem is the often clumsy way in which this mythological kingdom has been constructed. With luck, growth will come, but anyone watching tonight could be forgiven for assuming that, with the exception of one brave journalist, the entire population of Abbudin is divided between the obsequious and the murderous."

The Washington Post's Hank Stuever bluntly writes that "an interesting premise rooted in Arab Spring idealism — what if an heir to a Middle Eastern dictator had a chance to turn his country into a peaceful democracy? — becomes immediately weighed down by depressing ambivalence and hokey story lines." Even more so, "Rayner gives a stiff, coolly disinterested (and uninteresting) performance, the opposite of what Tyrant desperately needs in a protagonist."

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New York Daily News' David Hinckley tells viewers that "if you can gulp hard and swallow the premise of Tyrant, you’ll find another hard, dark, intense FX drama about a world in which a lot of the normal rules don't seem to apply ... this season's 10 episodes of Tyrant promise psychological trauma." However, "The more unique part of the show, though, could be its exploration of the Middle East at a depth and with a nuance rarely seen on American television."

Tyrant premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee