Tyrant, FX’s newest addition to its excellent roster, was brimming with controversy before it ever aired. Many brilliant creative minds put their hands on the show in the beginning stages, such as Ang Lee and David Yates, only to promptly exit. The show was originally supposed to shoot in Morocco, but was forced to move to Israel after the pilot. Recently, discussions about casting a white actor, Adam Rayner, to play the main character, a Middle Eastern man, also cast a shadow over the series. It’s always troubling when a show has many public creative shifts and controversies in its early days, but positive buzz for the content can transform even the most disturbed show’s luck. Would Tyrant end up living up to the many amazing shows that FX currently have to offer? Or was the behind the scenes drama an omen for its creative success?
Characters Worth Remembering:
• Barry Al Fayeed: 20 years after leaving his homeland of Abbudin (which is fictional), Barry—real name Bassam—is compelled to return home for his nephew’s wedding. He is the youngest son of the dictator Khaled Al Fayeed, who is responsible for plenty of political unrest, and has spent years avoiding that part of his life. In America, he is playing the role of perfect family man, as a father, husband, and doctor. Compared to his brother, Jamal, he’s a much more rational, political thinker.
• Jamal Al Fayeed: As the oldest son of Khaled, Jamal wields quite a bit of political power in Abbudin, which he abuses with frequency. He drives a red mid-life-crisis-mobile. In the course of one episode, he committed three rapes, cuts off a man’s finger, and slaps his wife. If there was a Abbudin’s Most Despicable Man competition, he’d win by far.
• Molly Al Fayeed: Barry’s wife, Molly, mostly plays the role of supportive, bland wife, but she show’s frustration with being shut out of Barry’s thoughts. Look for her to nag Barry for the next few episodes and do not much else.
• Sammy Al Fayeed: Barry’s sleezy son, Sammy, spends most of the episode being contrary in a very teenage way. He is the only member of the immediate family who is excited to be in Abbudin and actually wants to spend time with Jamal, so clearly his judgment is poor. He may also be gay.
• Emma Al Fayeed: The role of the Homeland-esque sullen daughter is filled by Emma.
• Leila Al Fayeed: Jamal’s wife, Leila, seems to be a Lady Macbeth-type character. She doesn’t get much time in the pilot, but there’s plenty of potential. Jamal is desperately in love with her, but she’s more interested in his political influence then him. (And who wouldn’t?)
• John Tucker: John is a US Embassy representative and big Khaled fanboy. His part in the episode is short, but he will likely be an ally for Barry in the future.
Barry Al Fayeed is finally going home. After 20 years of avoiding the fictional Abbudin, where his father has been the ruthless dictator his entire life, Barry must return to attend his nephew’s wedding. Although the country is currently at the peak of its political turmoil, he takes his entire family to the place that holds only bad memories for him and a family that is known for their cruelty.
In Abbudin, Barry is clearly uncomfortable with his father, his brother, and the entire lavish lifestyle that they offer. When his father buys out the entire plane for his family, Barry refuses to sit anywhere but his assigned seat. Despite having a huge palace to stay in, Barry takes his family to a rinky dink hotel.
Jamal, Barry’s older brother, has taken after his father. He’s introduced while raping a woman, as her husband and children wait outside the door. Throughout the episode, he commits so many evil bastard clichés that it’s difficult to see where he could possibly go from there. He’s perfectly able to put on a friendly façade around Barry’s family, but Barry can see through it easily. His methods of political discussions are fair-to-poor. Even though he bribed a terrorist’s uncle to ensure that nobody would attack his son’s wedding, the plans to attack the wedding are dead set. His process of conflict resolution? Beating the man, while completely naked, and cutting off his finger. Barry’s plan is much more rational; they should instead invite the terrorist’s entire family to the wedding and ensure that they’re sitting at every table so that he will call off any chance of hurting those he loves.
The wedding goes off without a hitch thanks to Barry’s plan. Jamal—just in case you weren’t sure that he’s the worst person ever—rapes his son’s wife at the wedding. Jamal also shoots a gun in the air in the middle of the dancing and then places the gun in Barry’s hand. It’s a subtle hint to his brother that he knows his secrets and their friendly interactions are just a smokescreen.
Just as Barry is ready to get his ass home and away from his psycho brother, Khaled collapses. At the hospital, Khaled requests to see his youngest son first. “Without you, they will kill us all,” he says cryptically. “I was wrong it should have been you.”
Khaled dies and Barry knows that they have to head home right away or risk never being able to leave again. Sammy wants to stay for the funeral and hang out with his insane uncle, mostly because entire role on the show is to be contradictory. Barry slaps the crap out of him and orders his family to get their asses in gear.
Meanwhile, a distressed Jamal is committing sexual assault in his car, while endangering the lives of everyone on the road, because why not? Might as well make him as evil as possible. His victim attempts to inject him with something (presumably to kill him and make the world a better place.) However, he stops her, but in the scuffle he loses control of the car and heads off a cliff. But because life isn’t fair, he lives.
While on the plane, Molly begs Barry to open up to her. He sits in silence, but flashes back to the root of his angst. When he was a child, he watched his father try to force Jamal to kill a terrorist. Young Jamal couldn’t do it, so Barry, who couldn’t have been older then 10, picked up the gun and killed the terrorist without prompting. Barry’s been acting as if he’s been trying to escape Abbudin and his evil family, when really he’s been attempting to run away from the person he could have become. If he can get back to America, he can put all of that behind him. Unfortunately, Abbudin officials stop the plane before it takes off and hand Barry a phone. Whoever’s on the other line is ready to tear apart his whole life.
Memorable Moments and Other Musings:
• The dialogue at the beginning was some of the most blatant, clunky pilot-dialogue. On the phone, Barry loudly proclaims that he’s a doctor—not to the caller, but to the viewers. Information about Barry’s 20 years away is dropped like anvils. Emma says, “I can’t believe you’re making us go to his wedding when Grandpa’s pictures are being torn up in the streets” in the most matter-of-fact tone, as her first line of dialogue. Hopefully the dialogue gets more natural when the show stops feeling the need for excessive exposition.
• Everybody in Abbudin speaks English. It may not have been practical to shoot a show in mostly a Middle Eastern language, but it was unbelievable that not one person didn’t automatically start speaking English.
• Also, Barry has no accent. He ran away from home at 16. However, it’s possible that he spent a lot of time perfecting his American accent to distance himself from home. No mention of the accent was made by any of his family.
• Barry may not have wanted to stay in his father’s palace, but he didn’t have to rent the smallest, grossest hotel room for his whole family to share. The man is a doctor. He can spring for a nice place to stay.
• Is it safe for the son of a dictator to stay in a hotel with no security? You’d think Barry would put the safety of his family over his issues with his father’s wealth.
• Justin Kirk plays John Tucker in the most Justin Kirk-way possible. He talks up Khaled to Barry, claiming that he’s worked miracles in Abbudin. This guy is clearly clueless.
• Jamal: “Talk to him? You mean like Oprah?”
• Barry meets with an old journalist friend, Fauzi, who has been writing about the political protests. He calls Barry out for coming home for the wedding, but not when he was really needed. Fauzi was tortured for three days after writing his article.
• Sammy has a subplot in which he checks out a cute guy at the bachelor party. At the wedding, he makes sure they aren’t related. The kid is either really brave or incredibly stupid to make the moves on a guy in a Middle Eastern country.
• “I love you and you hate me,” Jamal says to Leila. Their relationship was barely developed in the pilot, but it’s one of the more interesting dynamics introduced.
• When Barry smacks Sammy around, it’s shocking because so far Barry has been portrayed as a thoughtful, composed man. However, his family barely reacts.
• Molly nags Barry to open up about why he’s so troubled. Gee, it couldn’t be that his evil dictator father just died a few hours before, could it? I’m already dreading how bad the writing for this character is going to be.
• “I told you we shouldn’t have come.” And now you can never leave.
Tyrant may be the weakest pilot FX has aired in a long time, but there’s plenty of potential for it to be among one of the greats. The clunky dialogue can be blamed on the pilot structure. The flat characters, especially Barry’s wife and children, can be rounded out as the episodes go on. The pilot has a lot going for it. The story isn’t a re-tread of what we’ve seen on TV over and over, with the possibility of showcasing people whose stories aren’t usually told. There are plenty of loathsome yet compelling characters to follow.
Jamal, for instance, may be one of the most repugnant characters on television in a long while, mostly because his actions are so real and vile. He’s not a fun villain like Fargo’s Lester and Malvo. His antics in the coming weeks are sure to be just as stomach churning, so the squeamish may want to stay away.
If the show doesn’t focus too much on Barry’s bland American family and features the dynamics of the world Barry grew up in, it could end up being really great. But it needs a lot of work to get there.