More than most pilots, “Tyrant’s” first hour is all preamble — the necessary buildup and narrative contortions to establish its provocative if implausible premise. As such, it’s a solid but not particularly distinguished effort, one that requires a significant suspension of disbelief to explore its insights about the Middle East, and the nature of the strongmen who have held sway there. In that respect, this handsome-looking FX drama from the producers of “Homeland” is perhaps a logical companion to that series, but at least in its initial incarnation, not a fully worthy heir.
Because of the pilot’s nature this review will be filled with unavoidable spoilers, so be warned, if you’d like the takeoff to be minty fresh, please disembark now.
Adam Rayner is Barry (born Bassam Al-Fayeed), the pediatrician son of the dictator of a fictitious Arab country, who has been living in the U.S. and married to a loving wife (Jennifer Finnegan) for 19 years. Father to two teenagers, Barry’s inordinately reluctant to discuss his own youth, but grudgingly agrees to journey home to attend the wedding of his nephew.
Written by Gideon Raff (creator of the Israeli inspiration for “Homeland,” working in concert with that show’s exec producer, Howard Gordon), “Tyrant” requires a staggering series of coincidences to get from there to where the show is ultimately heading.
First, Barry is reunited with his hot-headed brute of a brother (Ashraf Barhom), who is clearly prone to abuse his privilege and power. He then meets with his father (Nasser Faris), who notes that “Saddam and Gaddafi are dead,” suggesting in this era of the Arab spring he might be living on borrowed time as well.
Soon enough, dad is indeed out of the picture, and the brother is, well, incapacitated. That leaves Barry in the uncomfortable position of being asked to help fill the void — essentially, manage the family business.
All that might be more intriguing were it not for the way the show handles Barry’s family. All right, dad has been reluctant to talk about home and the disturbing aspects of his youth, but we’re expected to believe his wife and kids are completely naïve about what’s been going on there — so much so that his son (Noah Silver) acts positively giddy about hanging around a palace, and his wife doesn’t understand Barry’s perpetually pained expressions. (Not to be uncharitable, but in the kids there are early hints about what might be called, in “Homeland” terms, Dana Brody syndrome.)
Because there is so much grim business to be conducted, “Tyrant” races through these scenarios with workmanlike efficiency, but also a rather thudding earnestness. Indeed, Justin Kirk’s unctuous U.S. diplomat, even with modest screen time, emerges a breath of fresh air.
Although subsequent episodes address some of these concerns, they don’t adequately resolve them. And while the subject matter certainly feels timely given chaotic events abroad and the show possesses a strong creative pedigree, it also suffers from a sense of self-importance that drags at the whole exercise.
FX is coming off a high note, creatively speaking, thanks to “Fargo,” and “Tyrant” aspires to inclusion in that esteemed tier of cable dramas. Advance criticism over the show’s depiction of Arabs and Muslims has already generated controversy, which should garner additional attention. Thus far, however, this look at power and its pitfalls at best offers the illusion of significance — a mere pretender in TV’s game of thrones.