Review: FX's 'Tyrant'
The story behind the making of FX's new drama "Tyrant" is ultimately much more interesting than "Tyrant" itself. A lot of people came and went from this project, a lot of people fought for its future, and a lot of obvious stumbling blocks were ignored because there was a real passion to get it made. But the finished product doesn't suggest something nearly worth all the fussing and fighting.
The story on the show (which debuts tomorrow night at 10): Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) is the son of the dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern nation, has been living in self-imposed exile in America since his teenage years, and now works as a pediatrician in southern California, with an American wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and teenage kids Emma (Anne Winters) and Sammy (Noah Silver). Reluctantly, he takes them to his homeland to attend his nephew's wedding, and dramatic events transpire in rapid succession that lead him to stay a while.
The story behind the show (as exhaustively covered in The Hollywood Reporter): "Tyrant" was created by Gideon Raff, the man responsible for the Israeli series that inspired "Homeland," and produced by "Homeland" and "24" veteran Howard Gordon. Oscar winner Ang Lee was lined up to direct the pilot, but he backed out. Frequent "Harry Potter" director David Yates replaced him, then later was blamed for his lack of TV experience — despite Yates, in fact, having ample TV experience in the U.K. (most notably with the original "State of Play") — when the first cut of the pilot played too blandly. After a struggle to find an actor of Arab descent to play Barry, the producers settled on Rayner, a white actor from England. Raff and Gordon went to war over the creative direction of the series, and Gordon won, with Raff leaving to focus on other projects. The pilot episode was filmed in Morocco, which didn't have the proper infrastructure to support ongoing production, so the show now films in Israel, with a fair amount of controversy, given its fictional setting and subject.
Sometimes, a show with a troubled origin story proves worth the trouble. (Case in point: "Lost.") More often — including with "Tyrant" — that amount of turmoil suggests a project that no one knows quite what to do with, but that keeps moving forward out of basic inertia. Gordon kept making this show because he set out to make it, not because he or anyone else involved (including "Six Feet Under" vet Craig Wright, with whom he shares a "developed by" credit) had a strong command of what the show was about and how best to leverage its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.
"Tyrant" is aiming to be a complex political drama ripped from recent headlines. (There are, at various points in the four episodes I've seen, references to or stories modeled on the Arab Spring, Benghazi and the recent turmoil in Syria.) What it unfortunately plays like is a Middle Eastern version of "Dallas," with Barry as the good son reluctantly coming home to clean up his family's ugly way of doing business, and his older brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) as the villain ruled by his temper and his libido.
Despite the novel setting, everything about the show feels stodgy and cliched. There's a hostage crisis in the second episode that plays out virtually beat-for-beat from a similar sequence in the 33-year-old "Hill Street Blues" pilot. The first episode is problematic on its own, but almost any intriguing or dangerous elements within it get sanded down over the ensuing episode, as the show tries to hedge its bets on alienating potential viewers.
One method of that is to have virtually all the characters speak English in every scene, even ones not featuring Barry or any other Americans (including Justin Kirk as a special envoy from the State Department). This might be less notable if "Tyrant" didn't air on a network with two shows that frequently go long stretches with characters speaking either Russian ("The Americans") or Spanish ("The Bridge"). Those series plunge their viewers into their fictionalized worlds; this one feels like it's terrified that viewers won't want to read subtitles.
A major character is introduced as a sociopath and serial rapist (often taking advantage of his position within the government to force himself on women), then is softened in ensuing episodes into someone capable of deep guilt and desire to reform, perhaps because the original version of the character was unsustainable.
Then there's the huge problem of Adam Rayner at the center of the series. No matter what, it would speak poorly of the producers that they cast a white actor as the lead in a show about an Arab family in an Arab world — the show tries to justify the choice by casting Alice Krige as Barry's mother — but you could at least understand where they were coming from if they had found a vaguely ethnic-looking equivalent of Damian Lewis or Jon Hamm. Rayner is so bland, so lacking in charisma in the role — Barry is by nature a quieter, more reserved character, but there are ways to play silence that aren't remotely this dull — that it's baffling that Gordon and company would go to the trouble and risk the justifiable anger over the casting.
And how has Gordon still not — after years on both "24" and "Homeland" — learned better than to devote so much time in what aims to be a complex political drama to annoying teenage characters? Sammy is instantly more aggravating and distracting than Dana Brody on her worst day. Though in this case, the problem is more broadly applied to Barry's entire American family, since Molly comes across as utterly oblivious to the dangers and realities of being in this country. Despite Barry's father being an infamous dictator who is compared at one point to Gaddafi, Molly seems to think it's a great idea to bring her kids to this place just so Barry can tell his genocidal old man how he made him feel as a little boy. It's incredibly tone deaf.
The family's attitude is at times awkwardly mirrored by the show itself. There are life and death stakes, on both an individual and international level, and yet "Tyrant" feels too casual too often, even as people are being shot, raped or tortured. Some of that falls on Barry being presented in such a passive fashion, but too often the show treats its complex, dangerous setting as window dressing for soapy, ineffective personal drama.
As it becomes clear that the brief family reunion at the wedding is going to be extended, a frustrated Barry turns to Molly and says, "I told you we shouldn't have come." There were similar warning signs throughout the creation of "Tyrant" that might have been telling everyone involved that they shouldn't have continued this venture. But they did, and here we are. Both FX and Howard Gordon have a history of taking big creative swings. In this case, they have a big miss.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com