August 27, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Tyrant”


TYRANT wasn’t the summer’s worst show, but it’s been the most piercing disappointment of the mini-season,  wasting a potentially thrilling premise–behind the scenes at a Middle Eastern military dictatorship–that seemed perfectly suited to FX, one that could combine the network’s trademark narrative energy and ambition with prestige (series co-developer Howard Gordon is also a co-creator of Homeland) and propel it to a level worthy of a Best Drama Series conversation.  Instead, Tyrant was a banal muddle that managed a compelling hour here and there but never came together.  (It’s looked particularly bad since Sundance’s exciting and intricate The Honorable Woman, also concerned with Middle Eastern politics, has made its debut.)

There was well-publicized dissension behind the scenes during and after production of Tyrant‘s pilot, as Gordon mowed down the competition within the series ranks to take sole control as showrunner, and frankly that might have been a more entertaining story to film than the one that hit the screen.  Instead, the creative confusion was evident throughout, as almost all the promise of the pilot went nowhere.  The show never had any intention of engaging with real Middle Eastern complexities, but it’s failed even as a simple (strongly Godfather-influenced) potboiler.  Series protagonist Bassam Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the Pasadena pediatrician who went back home to Abbudin after years estranged from his powerful family and stayed after his father’s death to work with his erratic brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), was tipped in the pilot to have a decidedly dark side (he murdered one of his father’s prisoners when still a child) who had run to the US to escape not only his family’s evil but his own, but he turned out to be a bland hero who just wanted to save the country and do good.  For that matter, Bassam and Jamal’s father was revealed midway through the season to have really been a peace-loving ruler betrayed by his own brother, head of the secret police Tariq (Raad Rawi).  Jamal’s character wavered between being a psychopath and a misunderstood and conflicted figure.  Bassam’s American family (wife Jennifer Finnigan, son Noah Silver, daughter Anne Winters) were stick figures, beyond a brief early story arc that had the gay son involved with one of the country’s young men.  Jamal’s wife Leila (Moran Atlas) was defined entirely by having felt scorned when Bassam, her first love, fled to America and left her behind.  The US State Department representative, who must at one time been considered a major character, since Justin Kirk was cast in the part, left that actor with little to do. 

While Gordon’s Homeland started brilliantly and only recently seemed to run out of steam, Tyrant never got going.  There was a brief point around midway through the season, as Bassam successfully manipulated both Jamal and a rebel leader to the peace table, where it seemed as though the series might have figured itself out, but that storyline petered out (Jamal lost control of himself and nearly murdered the other man in a palace bathroom), and things only got worse after that.  The last stretch of the season’s episodes concerned the coup Bassam was plotting against his brother–only for the most righteous reasons, to be sure.  In a final hour, written by Gordon and Consulting Producer Chris Keyser and directed by Michael Lehmann, which seemed to have been constructed around the show’s lack of a budget for military sequences, the coup fell apart before it even happened.  The plotting was dreadful, as the writers decided to spend chunks of the episode with two of the series’ least-developed characters, Bassam’s daughter and flighty sister-in-law (a late arrival to the series played by Jordana Spiro), whose silly shopping exploits prevented them from getting to the coup on time, while Jamal took Bassam on a fishing trip, during which every line of Jamal’s dialogue oozed the supposed twist that he had already found out all about Bassam’s plans.

Another central failure of Tyrant was its casting.  Putting aside Rayner’s evident non-Arabic looks and style, he simply wasn’t a very stirring leading man, unable to suggest any of the complications that might have lain behind Bassam’s stolid principles.  Most of the other actors were sharply limited by the roles they were given to play, and only Barhom cast a strong impression, making Jamal interesting enough that one couldn’t help rooting at times for Jamal, psychotic murderer though he might be, to win the day against his boring brother.

Tyrant‘s season ended with Bassam in a prison cell, awaiting Jamal’s death sentence, and that may have mirrored the series’ own status.  Tyrant‘s ratings have been underwhelming rather than terrible–it’s doing considerably better than FX’s 2d season of The Bridge, although not nearly as well as The Strain, and the network has conspicuously not announced a renewal–but after a full season, there’s little creative promise left in the show.  Although the series could potentially return, a swift execution might be the just if merciless verdict.

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."