July 2, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Tyrant”


TYRANT:  Tuesday 10PM on FX

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on TYRANT:  Barry Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) is a contented Pasadena-area pediatrician–and he’s also Bassam, the younger son of the longtime ruler of a Middle Eastern military dictatorship, who fled that life 20 years ago.  He travels with his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), son Sammy (Noah Silver) and daughter Emma (Anne Winters) back home for the first time to attend his nephew’s wedding, which also turns out to be the occasion of his father’s fatal stroke and a serious attempt on the life of his older brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), his father’s heir.  At the end of the pilot, Bassam tries to fly back to the US with his family, but the military police won’t allow them to go.

Episode 2:  We noted last week that because of the unusual amount of behind-the-scenes turmoil on Tyrant, the pilot might not be a fair indication of what the series was going to be.  That may still be somewhat true of the show’s second episode, which has a script credited to showrunner Howard Gordon and his co-“developer” and Executive Producer Craig Wright, even though Wright has since left the series.  (Series creator Gideon Raff departed after the pilot.)  However, it’s fair to say that Tyrant is showing little sign of wanting to be a show about political ideas, or one that’s built on complex characters.

The episode, directed capably by Michael Lehmann (albeit on a smaller physical scale than the pilot), picked up immediately after the events of the pilot, with Bassam and family on their way back to the palace.  A couple of scenes established that Jamal would survive his attack (and despite the best efforts of his female assailant’s teeth, his private parts would function again), and that back in the day, Jamal’s wife Leila (Moran Atias) was in love with Bassam.  Then the hour took an abrupt turn into half-baked action drama.  Jamal’s daughter-in-law, the bride from the pilot (who Jamal sexually assaulted at the wedding, but that didn’t come up in the course of the episode), was kidnapped–not, however, by serious terrorists, but by bungling teens who were hoping to use her as a bargaining chip to get the brother of one of them out of prison.

US diplomat John Tucker (Justin Kirk, used as a repository of exposition) urged Bassam to get involved, and sure enough, the initially reluctant Bassam soon walked right into the hostage situation, and walked back out a few minutes later with the girl safe and all the kidnappers surrendering.  So:  yay, Bassam!  But exactly as one would expect, no sooner had Bassam told the youths that they’d be treated fairly than the head of the secret police had them all shot in the back of the head.  Because Middle East.  Because TV.  By the end of the hour, after Jamal’s emotional eulogy at the funeral of their father (which Bassam had urged him to deliver extemporaneously), Bassam had agreed to stick around for a while, which wasn’t exactly a surprise, since otherwise Tyrant would have been the story of a pediatrician in Pasadena.

It wasn’t so much that almost none of this was convincing–although little of it was–but that it was entirely uncompelling.  The dialogue by Gordon and Wright was so blunt as to lack all personality, with each character telling the next exactly how he or she was feeling about whatever the subject was at hand.  There was no attempt at complexity, nor surprise.  The supporting characters, particularly Bassam’s wife and children, as well as his mother (Alice Krige) and Leila, were treated like bit players.  That put all the weight of the show squarely on Rayner’s shoulders.

And that may be Tyrant‘s biggest problem.  Rayner, after 2+ hours, is a good-looking (if not particularly Semitic) guy who has so far displayed little charisma or depth.  Although the pilot played with the idea that Bassam had a dark, even ruthless side, and that this was a big part of the reason that he wanted to get away from his home country and his family’s power, this episode reflected none of that (despite repeating the flashback from the pilot of young Bassam killing a rebel when his brother wouldn’t).  Bassam remained passive and stolid throughout, and if there were supposed to be raging waters within the character’s head, Rayner hasn’t been expressing them.  Tyrant, like his performance, is picturesque but inert.

Tyrant didn’t get off to much of a start in last week’s ratings, and it’s hard to see great potential for growth.  The series, so far, is much less ambitious than its premise would suggest, and although its second episode may still have found it in the process of finding its voice, viewer patience will have its limits.

ORIGINAL VERDICT:  If Nothing Else Is On…

PILOT + 1:  Entering a No-Fly Zone


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."