tv review – FX’s Tyrant, episode 1.1

Tyrant tells the story of Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, the youngest son of dictator Khaled Al-Fayeed who rules over the fictional Middle Eastern country Abbudin. When the show begins, Barry has fled his homeland and the clutches of his father and, for 20 years, he has been living in the United States now, where he got married and founded a family of his own. While Barry doesn’t want to return to his country of origin, his wife Molly has convinced him to do so anyway, so they can attend the marriage of Barry’s nephew. As a result Tyrant‘s first entry sees Barry, Molly and their two teenage children travel to Abbudin for the festive event, but before long it becomes apparent that this visit is a mistake.

With the compelling premise of dictator’s son returning to his motherland after 20 years, Tyrant‘s story holds a lot of promise and, additionally, there are a lot of interesting names attached to the series. The show is created by Prisoner Of War‘s Gideon Raff, developed by Howard Gordon and Craig Wright (the men behind Prisoner Of War‘s adaptation and Showtime hit series Homeland), and Tyrant‘s pilot is marvelously crafted by big-name director David Yates. Filmed in Israel, the series sure is ambitious and pulls you in immediately with it’s setting and score, both of which build an effective atmosphere. It should be recognized that Tyrant‘s creators have take a huge risk coming up with an American TV show that’s almost entirely set in a Middle Eastern country, which is quite an unconventional but important decision that could set a precedent for other series if Tyrant catches on. And, judging from its first episode, it very well could: it’s a solid hour of TV, even though it isn’t without its flaws.

Tyrant‘s biggest flaw is undoubtedly its premise. Barry’s return itself is very compelling and makes for a lot of interesting dramatic possibilities, but it’s hard to buy into the reason why Barry is returning. He simply decides to visit Abbudin, a country he desperately wanted to get and stay way from, because his wife has been nagging him about it. It rings false and, additionally, it makes Molly not only an unsympathetic character, but also a wholly unrealistic one: she is completely clueless regarding what happens in dictatorships like Al-Fayeed’s, something that’s very hard to swallow in a realistic universe that establishes that real-life despots Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have existed and that their heinous acts are well-known. Instead Molly decides her visibly terrified and haunted husband is just overreacting and that he should just talk things out with his father and brother, like any regular family should. The writing here is strangely inapt, especially because the whole reason Molly wants Barry to attend his brother’s wedding is because she recognizes her husband is so closed-off because of past experiences. In short: she both recognizes and denies her partner’s traumatized demeanor, which makes her another shallow and erratic female character that’s just there to push her husband around to advance the plot. So far their children unfortunately don’t fare any better.

The writing is much better when it comes to Barry himself. Flashbacks are very effective in showing viewers what he’s been through, and Adam Rayner’s acting conveys exactly what the character needs: this is a man that’s constantly guarded regarding his emotions and history because, where he came from, has left him scarred and confused. Rayner portrays Barry as a person who’s barely in control of his emotions, who’s pushed past traumas to a corner in his mind because these memories are too painful to deal with, but now that he’s forced to suddenly confront all of that again, he can barely hold it together. Barry is smartly juxtaposed with his brother Jamal who has been broken and isn’t able to contain his seething rage and animalistic urges: he takes whatever he wants, is abusive, and the pilot sees him resort to violence and rape on multiple occasions. While the show has to be careful not to make him into too much of a caricature, people like this do exist and Tyrant shouldn’t be condemned for this portrayal of an Uday Hussein-like man.

While the first episode of Tyrant really took it slow, the pace really fit the pilot: it introduced viewers to the important players, wowed them with the setting and it set up what’s to come, which tells the show’s audience its future could be very interesting indeed. Because at the wedding Barry’s father collapsed and he died soon after, which of course made his successor and eldest son Jamal the new ruler of Abbudin. Then a genius curveball was thrown at the show’s audience: the last five minutes saw Jamal get into a car accident, which will have big consequences for Barry, who was on his way out of the country, in a hurry to leave before his brother was in charge. It begs the question: who is the show’s titular tyrant and are we here to witness his fall or rise?

Tyrant is off to a solid and intriguing start. It’s a unique show with a very interesting main character, and Tyrant‘s story can get developed in a multitude of ways, which makes it exciting to see what will happen next. 8/10

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