I was on Front Row a couple of weeks back, discussing Tyrant with Kirsty Lang (you can listen to the programme here for another year!). Kirsty's first question was what did I think about Tyrant, and my response was that it was 'all over the place'. And so it is.
The credits say it was 'created' by Gideon Raff, who did the Israeli series that became Homeland in the US. But I suspect Raff came up with the pitch. Homeland took an American, turned him into a Moslem, and then brought him back to America to do the bidding of his terrorist mentor in Islam. Tyrant works the other way around: take a Moslem, in this case the younger son of the ruler of 'Abbudin', turn him into an American, and then bring him home and have him stay to help his brother rule the country when their father dies.
If you consider the concept far-fetched, don't forget that Bashar al-Assad was studying opthamology in England when he was called home after the death of his older brother Basil. But even as you remember that, you need to accept that the concept is far fetched and the execution is fetched to infinity. Because the show seems to have been developed by Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) and Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Lost, Dirty Sexy Money) and it seems trying desperately to incorporate as much of all those shows as possible. So what you get is a family soap opera but in an opulent fantasy setting, Dallas with revolution in the air, Dynasty without blow-dried hair.
The family saga owes a lot to the Godfather. Bassam Al-Fayeed is the younger brother who wanted out of the family business. He has traumatic reasons buried in his past, and he's trying desperately to hold them in. Which Adam Rayner, a British actor playing this Arab-American, does by holding everything in. He makes doe eyes to show he's struggling within, he makes sad eyes to show he doesn't like what he has to do. If he's Michael Corleone, older brother Jamaal is Sonny Corleone out of Caligula. Ashraf Barhum is a kind of Arab Mark Strong, and the role lets him let everything out, including rape, pillage, and killing. To make it more interesting, his wife Leila (Moran Atias), the Alexis Carrington of this show, all plotting and accessorizing, has 'history' with Bassam, which will eventually, one supposes interfere with Bassam/Barry's American wife. Although Molly is also supposed to be a doctor, Jennifer Finnegan plays the part with the wide-eyed surprise of a guest on Oprah discovering things in her life are not the way they seem.
I also found it curious that Bassam would be called Barry, since America has only one 'Barry' who's also (allegedly) a Moslem in thrall to powers from the world of Islam, and that of course is President Barack 'Barry' Obama. I note only that the show airs on Fox's FX network, for whose audience the default position is fear of the different, unknown, and Islamic, and leave it to you to decide how coincidental that all is.
In case you believe my Dallas anology might be forced, wait for the moment Barry's English-born mother, played by Alice Krieg comes on stage in full Miss Ellie mode. 'Oh Bassam, I know your brother is a sadistic unstable homicidal rapist and abuser of his people, but if he's late for the barbeque at the palace Friday I'll never forgive him!'.
And then there are the kids. This is the part of the show that bears Gordon's heavy touch, as both 24 and Homeland seemed to relish their subplot of obnoxious troubled daughters who exist mostly to create desperate situations for their fathers. You need to remember that the 18-35 market of TV watchers is assumed not only to have zero interest in anyone or anything older than they are, but zero intelligence to comprehend the same. So give them kids to identify with. In Tyrant, the daughter is actually the reasonable one, but Barry's son Sammy is both obnoxious and gay, both of which are dangerous things to be in this kingdom. I really don't want to hang around and see the way that pans out.
It is a shame they killed off the father in the first episode, as the conflict between the brothers could have been milked more effective with his presence, and because Nasser Farris as Khaled is very good; he's a subtle actor, which suits the nature of his character here. There is one major problem, however. Khaled has always favoured older son Jamaal, but after the 'twist' which ends the first episode, you would have thought that he would have recognised something different in his sons. Instead, Bassam becomes Barry. He's lucky he didn't move to Britain, or he would have become Bazza.
Shot in bright light, with little depth or shadow, Tyrant reflects its presentation, but since I did the Front Row segment, FX has commissioned a second series of the 'political' drama, as they call it. It's one of those shows you might feel compelled to watch, just to see what outrage Jamaal will perpetrate, or what horrible plot twists will drive Adam Rayner to have to emote, but it's the Middle East as soap. All that's missing is the Abbudin Oil Barons Club.