'Tyrant' Boss Howard Gordon on Rape Scenes, Backlash and Tackling Taboos

Howard Gordon

“History is really being made in this part of the world, and I think for a lot of people, particularly an American audience, it’s confusing, and this just felt like a great way to sort of get under the hood of this crazy engine of the Middle East and to put faces and a family saga there,” says Howard Gordon, photographed May 5 on the set of Tyrant in Tel Aviv.

Will Bassam survive?

That's the question Tyrant will have to answer when it returns for its second season June 16. The FX Middle Eastern-set drama last saw its protagonist, American pediatrician Bassam "Barry" Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), jailed by his own brother and the country's hostile president, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), for leading a coup against him. Bassam, who initially wanted nothing to do with his homeland, found himself entangled in the family political drama after his dictator father passed away early in season one. When his plan to overthrow his brother backfired, Jamal threatened to execute him, taking sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Season two will pick up four months after the freshman run left off, and promises more betrayal, secrets and surprises. 

Despite critical backlashTyrant proved to be a steady (if far from spectacular) performer for FX, with ratings for the first half of the first season identical to those for the second half. On a weekly basis, Tyrant averaged 5.1 million total viewers, with 2.3 million of them in the key 18-49 demo. Still, much of the media attention surrounding the high-profile drama from Homeland's Howard Gordon focused on the show's cadre of challenges, including the fact that the show was set in a foreign land. That that locale was the war-torn Middle East presented a marketing hurdle for the network, too, which its executives discussed at length in a Hollywood Reporter cover story pegged to the series' 2014 premiere. Among the others: several unplanned locale changes, including an evacuation from its Israeli production set late in season one.

Ahead of its second season bow, THR caught up with Gordon, the series' showrunner, to talk about the critical backlash that plagued season one and how he plans to lure new viewers to a reimagined season two.

What did you set out to do differently this season compared to season one?

In season one, the story itself was very restricted to the palace and to knitting these two brothers together in some fashion. My criticism of that last year would be that it was a little insular. The country itself was restricted to our characters inside the palace, so we didn’t get a real sense of the scope of the country and the people. I think this year, by telling the story we’re telling, we really get a deeper and more multifaceted exploration of this fictional country we’ve created — its problems and its beauty.

You’ve been open about the fact that the show got off to a rough start. What was the most difficult aspect of season one? 

From the very beginning, it was challenging to create a country that’s presumably in the real Middle East but is fictional, where people don’t speak Arabic — but English —because that’s what our audience required. And then telling these very complex stories, where we have to honor the real-life complications of that part of the world with this family drama about an American family. Also, we had this guy who actively didn’t want to visit his old family and home, but needed to somehow be compelled to stay there — there are certain narrative challenges that come with that. Those are the bumps that made themselves evident particularly at the beginning part of last season.

Was there a moment when it all clicked for you and the process became easier?

The turning point for me was finding an organic way to credibly put Barry in this place without making it look so foreboding that he’d be foolish. We did it as gracefully — clumsily though it may have appeared — as we could. But once Barry actually has his sea legs and realizes, “I can’t help my brother. He is too broken,” to the time he killed the sheik and begins to insinuate himself not only into the palace, but into usurping his brother — that’s where the story kind of found its own momentum. It became easier and more fun to write, and that’s continued to be the feeling in season two.

Your production team moved to Budapest this season. How was shooting in Central Europe different than doing so in Israel and then Turkey?

Budapest has a spectacular film community, whereas Israel is much, much more raw and developing. It was still hard because we had to build a sound stage from scratch; we had to recreate a Bedouin village and we had to rebuild the palace. As you can imagine, we have a lot of cultural consultants on a show like this because the potential to create inadvertent offense is very high. So we have multiple people vetting the scripts and the rough cuts, and they could not believe we shot in Budapest because they were astounded by the authenticity of it.

You co-wrote two of the first four episodes of the upcoming season, which is the total number of episodes that you penned in season one. Were you more involved in the writers-room this time around?

Yes, I’ve written more this year. The difference is really that Chris Keyser, who was a little more part-time last year, has come on full-time and he’s been a tremendous asset. He’s been invaluable as a partner. I’ve written everything I’ve written with him.

Tyrant was the subject of backlash before a single frame of the show aired last year. What feedback did you get throughout the season?

I can’t tell you how positive it’s been, and that’s been very gratifying. The response from groups of dissidents and people who were either jailed in Egypt or fled Syria or are still in Egypt has been extremely positive. The Muslim Public Affairs Counsel reads and vets every script and watches every rough cut. I wish somebody would ask them about their feedback because they can probably answer this question better than I can. Regardless of what people think about the creative success of the show, the idea that it’s inaccurate, or flying in the face, or insensitive is ironic when the person who makes that claim is not from that part of the world. One of the actor’s mothers, who is in Dubai, watches the show and came up to me after a read-through and said, “We love this show. It’s amazing how right you guys get it.”

You've made a conscious effort to ensure the fictional country of Abbudin doesn’t appear to be modeled after one particular nation. Have you received any criticism from anyone feeling otherwise?

I think initially everybody said, “Oh, it’s Syria!" "Oh, it’s Egypt!” There are clearly real world models in terms of the characters and the country, but there are no borders around any of those stories. It’s sort of all of the above and none of the above, which has its own creative conceit. Because it is the Middle East and not some fictional Northern Europe country — it’s not The Princess Diaries — the fantasy of being a middle class American who has this very powerful family back in the other part of the world is enticing but also terrifying. It certainly was for Barry.

The series premiere received criticism for its portrayal of rape in more than one of Jamal's scenes. Do you regret including such sensitive material?

I think we felt uncertain about the taste — no one wants to offend intentionally — and yet that’s who this character was. I rationalized his behavior to myself with the fact that those scenes were trying to bolster how damaged he was as a person, how abused he was by his father, how unloved he felt by the people, and now he’s lashing out. Is it an excuse for it? Certainly not. There’s no excuse for it. But it’s consistent with this broken character.

I know it was a nonstarter for a lot of people, and I know that it turned a lot of viewers away right at the outset, and that was certainly unfortunate. Rape is off-limits as a subject or an action for many writers I know because it’s so incendiary. It’s certainly extraordinarily sensitive. When people were offended in a way that made them turn off the show, not withstanding any person attacks they may have made against me, it’s really unfortunate. When I look back at it, my perspective in terms of "was it a mistake?" — I can’t really answer definitively one way or another.

Do you think the criticism is fair?

Yeah, I think it’s fair in that if a person watches it and is offended so deeply that they can’t bring themselves to keep watching it, then yeah. I think all criticism is fair, it truly is. But I think it’s unfortunate that their assessment of the show began and ended there because this show has so much more to offer and is so much more than that moment. You just can’t account for what sets people off.

You’ve worked with similar material on 24 and Homeland. What sets Tyrant apart from the other shows you’ve been involved with?

With 24, it had a tone and a storytelling engine that had precedent before. It kind of knows what it is and what it aspires to be. Whereas Tyrant really had so many moving parts. Is it a family drama? Is it a political drama? Is it a fantasy? Is it a satire? When you think about the premise, a pediatrician from Pasadena going back to his dictator father’s country, it doesn’t dictate the tone. So finding the voice, the pulse and the heart of this show, has been really challenging. Even something as simple as the language.

You have shows like The Americans where the Russian gives the show a sort of authenticity, or Arabic in the case of Homeland. It’s used sparingly but it’s used effectively to create this feeling of the show’s reality. But in our show, we can’t use Arabic without destroying the conceit, and that can distance it and make it feel less real. Then add to it the obvious minefield of cultural and theological sensitivities that people attach to it. There’s a wisdom in TV: never do a show that’s not set in America. For years, no one did. But if you really want to challenge a taboo, try to set a show entirely in the Middle East (Laughs).

Watch a sneak peak at what's to come from Tyrant this season: