A Television Review by Akash Singh
Frankly speaking, I was very much looking forward to FX’s new show Tyrant. It shared a producer with Homeland and it was seemingly going to be a positive addition to my prestige drama pantheon. It was not. Homeland, despite its narrative problems, is still some of the most incredibly acted and technically astute shows out there (they make people staring at computer screens incredibly riveting, as the AV Club pointed out). Homeland also looks to come back stronger than ever and I have faith it can pull it off. But Tyrant’s future is muddled and frankly, rightfully so. This series is completely off the track and it isn’t until the final half hour of the season where I’m not jumping out of my seat in teeth-gnashing irritation. Should it come back, it has its easily best character at the center of the proceeding. Should it not come back, it will be remembered as an experiment gone incredibly wrong. And in that experiment, we saw one of the blandest protagonists in the history of television, an Arabic nation made of stereotypes where no one seems capable of speaking in Arabic to one another, and some of the worst dialogue in recent memory.
Let’s begin with Bassam Al-Fayeed, or Barry for short because why not. Adam Rayner’s performance is like Kristen Stewart’s performance in most of her films and that is not a compliment. For some reason Rayner is absolutely incapable of showing even a shred of emotion no matter what the circumstance. Wedding? No expression. Massacre? No expression. Aroused? Maybe asexual, that’s a likelier explanation. It’s extremely frustrating as a viewer because Barry is our conduit into this entire world. Tyrant seems to be a story following the life of current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and it is clear that he is being set up to be the eventual dictator of Abbudin. Knowing that, Barry has to be a person who is relatable, kind, but also ultimately dark. He has to be corruptible, he has to become the Macbeth to his country’s Lady Macbeth. Unfortunately, he is so soulless, so clean cut and spirit-like, it’s difficult to believe that he ever told anyone to **** off, let alone become a brutal dictator in the future. Or make any potentially ethically compromising decision, for that matter. Rayner’s casting was quite controversial in its ethnic aspects, let alone his deadpan performance itself. Rayner is white, playing the role of a Middle Eastern autocratic scion. Ethnically sensitive casting has always been a problem in Hollywood and the show really doesn’t do anything to help itself on that front. If Rayner was an amazing actor in the role, ultimately no one would give a worth of a damn. But he’s not. Also problematic in the frequent casting of white actors in roles that are clearly written to be not is how these properties treat characters who are portrayed by actors with correct ethnic sensitivities. Often Tyrant delegates Barry as being the sensitive and sensible one, which wouldn’t be a problem if nearly everyone else wasn’t shown as being on the polar opposite. It’s a classic “White Savior” sort of situation without the narrative earning any sort of explanation at all. It turns out most Middle Eastern political problems can be solved with one white guy from Pasadena just having a conversation over coffee. Who knew?
The rest of the cast is mostly passable and or given shoddy material to work with. Jennifer Finnigan’s Molly is given nothing to work with and it isn’t until the final moments of the season that she acts with some urgency. In the pilot, Molly is completely unaware of why Barry is hesitant to meet back up with his family that forms the autocratic leadership of Abbudin. Her confusion makes no sense, as she could easily Google the atrocities Barry’s family has committed. A normal reaction would be “We are keeping our children as far away from your family as possible and if you’re unwilling to do soHis children are annoying, and there’s that. His son is a closeted homosexual and his daughter is a Valley girl. That is literally the extent of personalities they are given. Mohammad Bakri is wonderful as Sheik Rashid and lends a gravitas to the series that goes away as soon as the Sheik dies. The most entertaining character is the aforementioned Jamal and Ashraf Barhom kills it in the role, pun intended. He brings a phenomenal energy to the show and makes watching him thoroughly thrilling every second he’s on screen. And his performance in the finale, “Gone Fishing” (which is a terrible title for a season finale episode, just saying, but whatever), is absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately half of the material given to him is related to Jamal’s tendency to rape and rape often. This tendency of Tyrant to show rape often doesn’t add anything to the story nor does it add authenticity to the world it inhabits. Yes, women are subjugated in many parts of the Middle East, but it isn’t 99% through rape. Nor does the show give its rape victims an opportunity to really strike back at their attackers or even address the violence in a mature fashion. They’re completely distasteful.
The series has an odd lack of strong female characters even outside of Molly. Moran Atias, Alice Krige, Mor Palaneur, Sibylla Deen, and Leslie Hope are more than capable actresses whose characters are often shunted aside in favor of the brother vs. brother political tug of war. It’s a shame that that very tug of war is so one-sided and no one gives a damn about what the result is or about the world they inhabit. Speaking of inhabited worlds, Abbudin is the most boring depiction of the Middle East I can remember. The creators didn’t want to be political with real locations, but that at the very least would have provided it with some zinger. Abbudin, even as a country, completely lacks any personality of its own. There is no culture, no traditions, nothing that sets Abbudin apart from “this is a country of Arabs”. No one can even bother to speak Arabic to one another, a weird decision on a network that airs The Americans and The Bridge. Instead, everyone options for an awkwardly accented broken English that is far too distracting. The politics of the region are notoriously complex, but somehow Tyrant manages to make them even more frustrating, complicated, and utterly juvenile at times. Political intelligence. That is not too much to ask for in a show so deeply involved in politics itself.
Ultimately Tyrant is a half-assed effort that is being sold as anything but. Some of the performances are good, really good, but most of the actors are stuck with middling material that really gets them nowhere. The production design is for the most part well done and the direction is solid (especially David Yates). But the narrative is half-baked and it is ultimately a massive miss for the production team and FX. Whether or not it comes back is up in the air, especially considering the finale ratings. But ultimately it really doesn’t matter. It’s a forgettable effort and that is always a bit difficult to say, considering the amount of work that went into it. There was a chance for Tyrant to become a smart, sharp show about a region of the world in such turmoil and so pivotal to geopolitical affairs. But it went for shock and mismatched characterization. Intelligent writing be damned, apparently.
Ten episodes of Season 1 for Review
Image Courtesy: Zap 2 It, FX Networks, The Hollywood Reporter, FX Now Canada, Seat 42f