'Tyrant's' Howard Gordon Encourages Inevitable Criticism of the Political Drama

Tyrant Still - H 2013
Patrick Harborn, FX/Fox 21/FXP

Tyrant Still - H 2013

"What does it mean to be a good man?"

That is showrunner Howard Gordon's one-line pitch for his new FX series, Tyrant, inspired by the ongoing story of the Arab Spring. The drama, created by Homeland's Gideon Raff, centers on the character of Bassam "Barry" Al Fayeed, the son of a Middle Eastern dictator who returns home for the first time in 20 years. When his father dies, he and his Western family are drawn into the workings of a turbulent Middle Eastern nation and are forced to stay.

"This is a story that predated 9/11, but certainly for our minds and to our minds we realize we're part of a world that is not an ocean and several continents away," Gordon said of the subject matter at the heart of his latest drama, bowing in June, noting that his other work, 24 and Homeland, were both iterations of that same story. But Tyrant is as much of a political drama as it is a family one, with the showrunner adding that it's not about "just the tyranny of the country but the tyranny of ourselves and over our family."

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Tyrant's inspiration came to Raff, a native of the Middle East, as he sat watching the news in his apartment in Tel Aviv, where the series will be shot. At that time, there was a story about a mass killing ordered by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad that had many labeling him a monster. What struck Raff was the fact that only a few years earlier, many of those same people were thrilled to have a Western-educated leader married to a British woman coming in to replace his father. "I thought, how do you go from being that to being [condemned] as a mass killer?" said Raff, adding: "That journey was really interesting to me."

The pitch hooked Gordon, a self-described "story junkie," who couldn't resist taking it on despite a full plate, including Showtime's Homeland, TNT's Legends and Fox's 24 reboot. (Unlike the other efforts, Gordon is now running Tyrant.) "I just can't say no to a story that grabs me, and this one just grabbed me," he gushed from the stage at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, describing this drama, as he does Homeland, as a "story of our time." Though it is set in an imaginary country, it exists in a very real world, and Gordon and his writers will strive to honor what the public knows about the politics and unrest in the Middle East.

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"If you look at The New York Times or any paper for that matter, 50 percent of the ink is about what's happening in Egypt, what's happened in Libya, what's happening in Syria," he told reporters. "That part of the world is experiencing a seismic shift, and to have the opportunity to tell a story about people and to put faces on the things that are merely headlines felt just too good to ignore."

Among the key decisions he and his team had to make early on was not to rely on subtitles, a move Gordon suggests would make a Middle East-set series as "digestable" and "welcoming" as possible. The latter was particularly important since, as Gordon put it, Tyrant already "tests [one] of the conventional tropes of television, which is: Do people want to see a show over there -- or anywhere but here?"

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Still, Gordon seems keenly aware that a series centering on an assimilated Muslim named Barry (a nickname of President Obama's) is likely to draw the ire of outlets including Fox News. "Bring it on! Come on, Roger [Ailes]!" he joked, noting that he has been down this road before with his other shows: "What can you do? I've been called an Islamophobe and a torture monger, so what else can they call me?"