'Tyrant': TV Review

Miller Mobley
FX hopes "Tyrant" will be its next sprawling drama
The youngest son of a Middle Eastern dictator has been living a quiet life in Pasadena for 20 years, ignoring his royal family and focusing on his own family — until he gets pulled back in to the turmoil. A big, sprawling possible-epic, FX believes the series' potential outweighs the risk of a divided audience. 

The Middle Eastern-set Godfather-like drama has a colorful backstory and lots of potential, but with only the pilot as a guide, who really knows?

It will be interesting to see if FX’s ambitious and much-sought-after new dramatic series Tyrant was worth all the trouble.

As it stands now, the pilot is strong and entertaining but not immediately a knockout punch (the second and third episodes were not available prior to the premiere — a rarity in FX’s historically efficient and critic-friendly world). 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.

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Basically the classic Godfather structure set in the Middle East, Tyrant revolves around Barry Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), a pediatrician living in Pasadena with his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and their two high school aged children, Emma (Anne Winters) and Sammy (Noah Silver). Though he’s been in the United States for 20 years, "Barry" is better known as Bassam Al-Fayeed, the youngest son of Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris), the dictator of fictional Abbudin.

Bassam fled the country at 16, leaving behind his father, his British mother Amira (Alice Krige) and his older brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom).

"Barry" has resisted every overture to return to his country of origin and his royal family, frequently telling Molly that she, Emma and Sammy are the only ones who truly qualify as family in his eyes.

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But as we know from the Godfather and other such films, no matter how hard you try to get out, you keep getting pulled back in. And so Barry agrees to go back for the marriage of Jamal’s son (and to appease Molly, who knows so little about Barry’s upbringing) and thus the wheels of Tyrant are set in motion.

Without being able to judge a second, third or fourth episode to see how Tyrant will track, creatively, what ends up being most intriguing is the backstory (thoroughly documented by Lacey Rose in her THR cover story on Tyrant).

And 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.

The series was first supposed to be directed by Ang Lee, who dropped out before the pilot was shot. He was replaced by David Yates (Harry Potter), who shot the pilot. Some editing was done and additional scenes were shot for the pilot, plus Tyrant went through numerous pilot rewrites and lost series creator Gideon Raff (whose Israeli series Prisoner of War was adapted to become Homeland on Showtime by Howard Gordon (who is running Tyrant) and Alex Gansa.

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Clearly a lot was at stake, since Tyrant sparked a bidding war (the major players in that were HBO and FX).

The creative differences between Raff and Gordon open up the question of what Tyrant will ultimately be about as it moves forward.

Are the family dynamics of Barry, his American family and the Al-Fayeed royal line the main impetus for the drama, or will the political machinations of the Middle East take precedent? Or, another consideration, will the internal strife of the fictional Abbudin create enough drama to provide much of the A storyline?

There’s also the unknown factor of whether there’s an audience somewhere in the divide of Islamaphobes on one side and Muslim’s who fear stereotyping on the other. At least at the outset, the politics of the drama will not be the deciding factor in whether it lives or dies — being compelling in an extremely crowded field is by far the bigger worry. And, again, the pilot is strong and closes with a cliffhanger element that should bring back a sizeable chunk of the tune-in audience. 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 and we can only hope the teenage kids have something to do to keep them relevant (the pilot establishes the son is gay, which would certainly create the necessary drama in this new culture he finds himself in).

Although we get just a small taste of Justin Kirk in the pilot as a U.S. diplomat, his presence here is welcome.

However, Tyrant does have some stumbling blocks. Despite Barhom’s magnetic presence as Jamal, the character is written needlessly over the top in the pilot — to the point of maddening distraction. And it’s a little hard to believe that a dictator’s son could fly under the radar in the United States, even if he did live in Pasadena.

There is no series, obviously, if Tyrant keeps Barry’s father in power, so his inevitable demise in the pilot sets up a very difficult decision that Barry/Bassam must make — or have forced on him. That’s the crux of the series and a good one, but having no other episodes to find out in what direction the series wants to go – not just with Barry/Bassam, but where the core of its stories will come from (family or politics), means it’s too early to give a definitive endorsement to Tyrant, despite its potential.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine