June 25, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Tyrant”


TYRANT:  Tuesday 10PM on FX – If Nothing Else Is On…

For better or worse, it may be particularly unfair to judge FX’s new TYRANT on the basis of its pilot alone.  There’s been an unusual amount of behind-the-scenes dissension on the show that’s gone public, and one of the upshots is that although Gideon Raff, creator of the Israeli series that inspired Homeland, gets screen credit for creating Tyrant and as writer of the pilot script, he’s since left the project, and Executive Producer Howard Gordon (a creator of the American Homeland) will be running the series.  (Executive Producer Craig Wright, who shares the “Developed by” credit with Gordon, has also exited.)  We’ll find out soon enough if Gordon will be able to improve a drama that initially seems to have some serious shortcomings.

FX almost always aims high–its gallery includes such distinctive shows as The Americans, The Bridge, Fargo, American Horror Story and Louie–and the idea of setting a US series in a Middle Eastern dictatorship (the fictional country of Baladi) is audacious.  Much of the pilot narrative, however, is disconcertingly borrowed from The Godfather.

The central occasion that sets the plot in motion is once again a family wedding, for which a long-absent younger son will be returning home.  The Don Corleone figure is Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris), the grandfather of the groom, and ruthless ruler of the nation for decades.  His Sonny is Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), the older son and presumptive heir, and a violent, impetuous hothead–we literally meet Jamal mid-rape (the script is that unsubtle), and before the episode is over, he’s sexually assaulted his son’s bride.  Tyrant‘s protagonist, though, is Jamal’s brother Bassam aka Barry (Adam Rayner), who might as well be wearing an “I Am Not Michael Corleone” t-shirt.  Bassam was determined to get away from the disreputable family business and have a legitimate life, fleeing Baladi as a teenager and going to medical school in the US, where he built a respectable profession and home with wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and children Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Anne Winters).  Secretly, though, Barry is more ruthless, coldblooded and shrewd than his brother or anyone else, a fact that he hides behind an affect of cool reserve.

The Godfather parallels don’t end there, either.  A crisis involving his father’s health, and another that results from his brother’s uncontrolled recklessness, lead to Barry’s getting pulled once again into the Al-Fayeed saga, and by the end of the pilot, his WASP wife realizes she may not really know him at all.  If Raff and company could have figured out a way to end the pilot with Barry closing a door on Molly, and for a horse’s head to make an appearance in someone’s bed, they probably would have included those as well.

Now, The Godfather is one of the most influential movies in Hollywood history, and there are many, many films and TV shows that have made use of one or another of its tropes.  But if you’re going to be quite so shameless as Tyrant, you’re asking for comparisons to be made, and not surprisingly, Tyrant comes up very short.  The central weakness is the character of Barry, and Rayner’s performance in the role.  Playing an emotionally withholding character who’s boiling within is tricky to say the least (Lee Pace isn’t doing a very good job of it on Halt and Catch Fire either), and based on the pilot, Rayner is in a league with neither Al Pacino nor Jon Hamm.  (It’s also hard to avoid the very obvious fact that Rayner isn’t of Arab descent, and he doesn’t match up physically with any of the actors who play his Baladi family and colleagues, even though the show has given him Alice Krige as a presumably western-born mother.)  In Rayner’s hands, Barry comes across as merely bland.

None of the characters are well drawn.  Molly is so determined to have her husband talk to his dictator father about his lingering feelings of rejection as a child that she seems like an imbecile, while the two teens are generically simplistic.  (It should be interesting that Sammy is gay, but apart from the unintentional humor of his hitting a Baladi youth’s gaydar within seconds of their meeting, it doesn’t figure into his character much in the pilot.)  Justin Kirk shows up briefly as an unctuous US diplomat, and will presumably have more to do as the series continues.

Tyrant is well-produced, with some effective CG overviews of Baladi (the pilot was shot in Morocco, although the series itself is being filmed in Israel), but director David Yates (who was behind the last run of Harry Potter movies, and who was a late-in-the-game replacement for Ang Lee as pilot director) doesn’t bring much urgency to the drama.  One would normally assume that this is in part because the pilot runs 20 minutes longer than a typical series hour, but FX is often willing to allow its dramas to regularly run that long, so the pacing may not get much faster going forward.  It’s also weird enough to be worth noting that everyone in Tyrant speaks English at all times, including when Baladi natives are talking to each other, which contributes to the fake feeling of the enterprise.  (Even The Godfather used subtitles in the Sicilian sequences and elsewhere.)

If Tyrant can engage more deeply in its fictional but very relevant setting, and expand its characters to the point where they don’t seem like mere outlines from a Godfather coloring book to be drawn in, it remains a series with great potential, one that could be provocative and surprising.  If that’s going to happen, though, the show’s own regime change will have to improve its prospects.

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."