With a script from venerable TV hand Glenn Gordon Caron (think Moonlighting), Tyrant’s third episode “My Brother’s Keeper” is marked by an admirable competence. All the story pieces fit together, some supporting characters and side arcs are sketched in, and there’s even a touch of wit here and there. Saying this is the best episode of Tyrant so far is true, yet the basic problems inherent in the series remain, suggesting that a respectably crafted hour of average television may be the show’s ceiling.
The episode sees Barry committing to stay in Abbudin in order to help his brother Jamal transition himself into his new presidency and the country itself into the modern world. Barry uncovers the truth about the politically motivated arrest of the poor husband of the woman Jamal had forced into sexual slavery (she of the penis-bite assassination attempt in the pilot), and persuades Jamal to release the terrorist leader his coldly manipulative general uncle had arrested on false charges the leader was behind the assassination. Barry does the legwork, confronts his brother, averts an international incident, and makes the hard choice to allow the husband to be executed for his part in the assassination, all the while forcing Jamal to set up an irrevocable trust for the man’s two young sons in recompense. It’s a busy, active, morally wrenching day for Barry—so why does he emerge from the other side of it as bland and uninteresting as he’s been all along?
Tyrant, playing out its action in the fictional Abbudin, lacks stakes. There’s talk from Barry and untrustworthy US ambassador John Tucker (Justin Kirk) about possible international ramifications if the political chicanery is revealed, and mention of the annual pilgrimage where hundreds of thousands of people come to Abbudin, but the country itself remains a woefully generic backdrop for all the Al-Fayeeds to play out their political games. Apart from the audience-courting universal use of English throughout (sure, it’s been talked to death, but it still saps the life from the show) the series’ approach to the conflicts in its fictional Middle Eastern nation are deadeningly conventional.
Abbudin has no problems outside of its borders, no relation to the actual history and struggles of the region. As presented so far, we know Abbudin is a dictatorship, the Al-Fayeeds rule it with an iron fist, and that there are elements in the country planning to rebel against the government. And…that’s it. Much of the anticipation surrounding Tyrant centered on how an American series created by the makers of 24 and Homeland (and Prisoners Of War, the Israeli antecedent to Homeland) would delve into the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. Based on its first three episodes, Tyrant has revealed a sensibility both facile and drab, an uninspiring combination that, nonetheless, has proven thematically troubling.
If Abbudin is nowhere particular, then it functions as the series’ summation of the Arab world in toto, and Tyrant’s conception of that world is suspect. The series’ juxtaposition of Jamal and Barry as the two paths Abbudin could take are, thus far, troublingly black and white, with the Western-educated, thoroughly Americanized Barry being the enlightened choice, and the strongman’s Arab son Jamal being the rape-y, brutal, snarling wrong one. (And not to beat the point to death, but the fact that Barry is played by white Adam Rayner and Jamal by Israeli Arab Ashraf Barhom only strengthens the suspect point.) What complexity that juxtaposition boasts emerges from the disparate charisma levels of the two actors.
Ashraf Barhom is playing a showier character than is Adam Rayner, but it’s also undeniable that Barhom brings a ferocious energy to Jamal. Even (or perhaps especially) when he’s doing something awful, Jamal is eminently watchable, and Bahom, with his expressive eyes, is able to suggest the inner turmoil that animates him. And while the show’s contention that Jamal’s abhorrent acts are a result of that tension (being unable to live up to his father’s expectations, being thrust into a role he’s constitutionally unsuited for) is worrisome, at least Barhom brings Jamal alive. Rayner on the other hand, while certainly stuck with the less juicy role of peacemaker and all-around wet blanket, continues to bring very little to the enterprise. His interrogation room showdown with Sammy Sheik’s Hamid this week, where Barry gets the aggrieved husband to break down and confess that he was not put up to the assassination attempt by Alexander Karim’s rebel leader Ihab but instead planned the whole thing in retaliation for Jamal raping his wife, plays out like a Law & Order episode, with Rayner as a very dull Sam Waterston.
Barry’s gamesmanship in “My Brother’s Keeper” isn’t bad, truly—it’s that he’s always coming from such a ludicrously naïve place that he comes off as insipid. When he finds out that Jamal intends to have Ihab hanged in public, Barry leans in wide-eyed and asks John Tucker, “They still do that here?” When Barry calls Abbudin’s policies “barbaric,” when he incredulously states, “this is the 21st century!,” when Barry begs wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) to stay with him because he “just need[s] one other sane person” to talk to, Barry is set up as the voice of reason. Unfortunately, it’s such a provincial, uninformed, ridiculously conventional voice that the show’s potential for storytelling complexity is limited by it. We’re going to experience Tyrant through Barry’s sensibilities, and those sensibilities make for simplistic television. (Barry’s role thus far is to tell everyone “that’s not nice” again and again.) As I’ve said before, for the show’s stated Godfather parallels to work, Barry has to have Michael Corleone’s gleam of corruptibility even as he protests otherwise. Rayner just isn’t bringing anything but stolid earnestness and defeated sighs to the role.
- At least poor, pawed Nusrat (Sibylla Dean) is allowed a moment to reveal how her incessant mistreatment thus far is affecting her, turning away from the advances of burly husband Ahmed (Cameron Gharaee). She really has had a tough week.
- Sammy (Noah Silver) and Abdul (Mehdi Dehbi) finally get it on on a moonlit beach, sealing their fate as future plot devices.
- Barry still gets some awkward lines to deal with. This week’s “It’s so dark every time I think I’ve hit the bottom, there’s another subbasement,” is rough, but pales in comparison to his advice to friend Fauzi’s arrested daughter, “The best I could come up with of the top of my head is you were carjacked by some of his men and they took you back there to rob you and rape you. It’s not an ideal story…”
- Speaking of Fauzi, Fares Fares continues to make the beleaguered journalist an interesting presence. His relationship with Barry has a complex warmth to it.
- Sepulchral Al-Fayeed advisor Yussef (Salim Dau) is quietly asserting his presence with well-placed graveyard humor. His deadpan offer of a cigarette to ever-panicky Walid (Waleed Elgadi) was just right.
- “Brother, I know I have done bad things…but I’m the president now. I want to be a new man and this will never happen again.” So, Jamal’s done with all that pesky rape, then.
- Sammy Sheik’s performance in the interrogation scene is solidly affecting. Too bad Rayner responds to the wrenching news about Jamal’s culpability with his customary sighs and hunched shoulders.
- A dispiriting theme in the criticism of these reviews can be summed up with “well, that’s the way they really are.” Leaving the inherent racism of that argument aside for the moment, it’s just bad analysis. Tyrant is a TV show. It was created from nothing, with every element a conscious choice by its creators and, as a work of fiction, those creative choices deserve scrutiny. The Middle East is a place with a complex history and many problems—but latching onto Tyrant’s often simplistic depiction of the region and its peoples as proof of one’s own unfortunate xenophobia isn’t the level of discussion those issues deserve. It’s disappointing, frankly.