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Ashraf Barhom, Adam Rayner
Ashraf Barhom, Adam Rayner

Tyrant: “Pilot”

Desert soap and dull crudity

A show like Tyrant, with its Middle Eastern setting and political themes in a time where American audiences’ fears and suspicions of the Arab world are running high, courts controversy on any number of fronts. Coming as it does from some of the minds behind shows like Homeland and 24 (which approach the same milieu from a more action-oriented place), a political drama set firmly within that world and promising to delve more deeply into the region’s politics and culture is going to come under some scrutiny about its point of view. But, on the basis of its first episode, Tyrant is less interested in fomenting cultural controversy than in telling a Godfather-inspired family melodrama, with its cultural trappings forming colorful background. There’s still a lot that’s problematic in Tyrant, but, as Todd pointed out in his TV Review, its biggest flaw is how conventional it is.

The story of a blandly prosperous California pediatrician Bassam (he goes by Barry) Al-Fayeed (British actor Adam Rayner, with suntan and young Jeffrey Dean Morgan good looks) who is also the second son of the dictator of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Abbudin, Tyrant gets up and running quickly, with Barry warily preparing to bring his American family to Abbudin for his nephew’s wedding. Purposefully absent for 20 years, having turned his back on his past, Barry’s leery of exposing his new family to the life he abandoned, a fact Rayner conveys throughout the episode with a pinched, worried demeanor that’s a detriment to his role as the series’ protagonist. Rayner’s not bad in the role, but he’s awfully constrained (even when called upon to, say, restrain his naked, enraged elder brother in a TV-friendly version of the sauna scene from Eastern Promises later in the episode). While we’re given glimpses of the reasons why Barry’s so tightly controlled in the big flashback reveal at the end of the episode (where young Barry, played by blank-faced little Housini Abour, does something disturbingly unexpected), there’s little in Rayner’s affect so far to suggest his fateful connection to his family’s violent legacy. Barry is Tyrant’s Michael Corleone, but, in Rayner’s conception, he lacks any sense of being drawn to what the show contends is his destiny—he’s Michael tiptoeing into the wedding with one foot still out the door.

Barry’s relationship with his American family is calamitously conceived. Pilots work in broad outlines, but even filled in as they will be in coming episodes, Tyrant is clearly going to have to drag these characters along like anchors. Not to immediately bring in the Homeland comparisons, but the show is saddled with a couple of Danas—Anne Winters’ Emma is a sulk and Noah Silver’s Sammy is a brat, and together they’re a drag. Emma has little to do in the episode but scold (her musical “haaate” upon seeing their tiny hotel room is especially tiresome), and Sammy’s rebellious snarkiness isn’t more interesting. And while Sammy is set up for several storylines down the road (he’s clearly willing to be seduced by the luxury of this new world, and his surreptitious flirtation with Mehdi Debhi’s handsome aide Abdul means trouble), the character’s too flimsy to want to see more of him. And as Barry’s blonde, American wife, Jennifer Finnigan approaches the very complex and dangerous situations the Al-Fayeeds find themselves in as if it were a Kate Hudson movie—she keeps wanting to talk to Barry about their relationship in circumstances he (and the show) knows are intense and perilous, and it makes her look insipid.

It’s not all their fault, however, as the show’s conception of Barry’s relationship with his family is absurdly blinkered. While Barry’s desire to leave it all behind explains his unwillingness to tell them about his childhood, it doesn’t explain how ludicrously uninformed the family is about the very real details and dangers they’re walking into. It makes them look dim and him irresponsible and, what’s more, it’s dramatically unrealistic. There is always the danger in a drama like this that the all-American characters are going to be used as the viewers’ surrogates and that the foreign culture they encounter will only be experienced through their eyes. And while they do get to ask the sort of exposition-friendly Doctor Who companion questions at times, so far none of the three American Al-Fayeeds have enough presence to represent much of anything.

Once in Abbudin (after Barry discovers his father has bought out the entire plane for their flight), Tyrant’s racial and sexual politics become troublesomely vivid in the form of a rape. After toasting to Barry’s as-yet unseen elder brother Jamal with the in-flight champagne he’s sent along, the show cuts to Jamal, naked and sweating and grunting as he mounts a grimacing woman from behind. It’s a shocking transition, and it’s glib and offensive, introducing Abbudin (and therefore the Middle East) in the most shocking manner possible. Ashraf Barhom’s Jamal is the story’s Sonny and its Fredo (as we see in that final flashback where Barry, not elder son Jamal, executes a man on his father’s orders), a brutal, hairtrigger, sexually rapacious playboy whose ferocious energy in the role is both welcome and problematic. In a pilot so reined in by its protagonist’s clenched persona, Jamal provides some much-needed narrative id, but he’s also indicative of how deep Tyrant plans to get into the issues raised by its setting. The place of women in Middle Eastern culture is something most Western audiences find most unacceptable, so Tyrant has Jamal commit three sexual assaults (one on his new daughter-in-law, two on his mistress) in its first hour—that’s Tyrant’s approach to the woman issue. (And if you feel the need to debate how forcing a woman to service you sexually while you make her husband and children wait in the next room under armed guard isn’t rape in the comments, I’ll be somewhere else.) That’s not a criticism of Barhom, who brings a dangerous energy to everything Jamal does and displays some affecting conflicted emotions, but of Tyrant’s storytelling. And then there’s the racial element.

There’s an undeniably unseemly implication to the fact that, of the two brothers, the one who fled his home country and is thoroughly Americanized (and played by a white actor) isn’t the violent, crude, vicious rapist, while the one who was raised in Abbudin and played by an actor of Arab descent (Barhom is an Israeli Arab) is. Barhom is alive onscreen the way that Rayner isn’t, but his Lamborghini-driving, Aerosmith-blasting, razor-wielding sex brute raises questions of what creators Gideon Raff, Howard Gordon, and Craig Wright are trying to say.

To that end, the show might have gone the Homeland route and allowed the people of Abbudin speak in subtitles—even when the yanks aren’t around, everyone speaks in that vaguely accented English used to denote “foreign.” Like the fictional nature of Abbudin itself, this English language hegemony robs the show’s setting of personality, making it less a culture in its own right than the alien place for the Americanized Barry to act upon. (Filmed in Morocco and Israel, there’s one CGI establishing shot of the king’s palace featuring Abbudin’s flag conspicuously not moving in the wind.) Abbudin’s people themselves are an undifferentiated rabble, either obsequious or diffidently rebellious, and the fictional setting saps the immediacy of any potential coming unrest. At one point, the king shrugs to Barry, “They say they want freedom. Freedom to do what? To kill each other? I give them order and prosperity and all they want is chaos,” and the country’s purported enemies are described in passing as “infidels, the Brotherhood, and the Zionists.” It’s all too hazy, suggesting that Tyrant’s conflicts will rest more with the soapy family drama than any nuanced examination of Middle Eastern politics.

Typically for a pilot, the episode groans under the weight of exposition and character introductions. We barely get a hint of the king (played by Homeland’s bomb vest maker Nasser Faris), before he succumbs to a stroke, although the flashbacks seeded throughout the episode suggest his relationship with Jamal and Barry will be explored further. The same goes for the likes of Justin Kirk as the open-shirted, shifty-eyed American ambassador, Alice Krige as Barry’s (and possibly Jamal’s—it’s not clear) stately British mother, and icily beautiful Moran Atais, Jamal’s ambitious wife Leila. The soulful Lebanese actor Fares Fares (Easy Money) manages to wring some substance from his brief scene as principled journalist Fauzi, although, like much of the show’s dialogue, his “you don’t understand because you don’t want to understand” lecture to Barry is too on-the-nose.

When the end comes, with Barry’s desperate plan to flee the country upon his father’s death halted on the runway by the car crash injury of Jamal (during a ludicrous twist involving the third sexually repellant act of the pilot), we’re meant to hear Rayner’s anxious reaction as something like, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!” But like the movie that quote’s from, Tyrant seems more like a pale imitation of the Godfather films it so desperately wants to emulate.  

Stray observations:

  • I simply cannot find the name of the actress playing Jamal’s unfortunate mistress by deadline. I’ll provide it when I can—the poor lady deserves that.
  • Finnigan’s dull here, but she’s fighting against lines like “Barry, you ran away from your father when you were 16. And you’re still running. It’s left you joyless,” “I’m sick of it! I never know what you’re thinking!,” “I feel like I don’t know who you are any more. I’m not sure I ever did,” and “I mean it Barry, I can’t do this any more.”
  • Of course, Rayner has to contend with such lines as, “The reason that Jamal is so broken is that my father broke him.”
  • Following Barry’s advice, Jamal has a great deadpan scene, growling out, “My brother would like you and your family to come to the wedding as our honored guests,” while strutting nakedly back and forth in front of the crouching, bloody, terrified man he was torturing.  

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