The quagmire of the Middle East appeared to engulf the first season of “Tyrant,” an FX drama that dropped an expatriate and his absurdly dense American family into the turmoil of his fictional native country. The new episodes, however, reflect a fairly impressive turnaround, significantly diminishing, if not wholly expunging, much of the stupidity, while echoing real-life events in provocative ways. Still not a great show, this project from Gideon Raff and Howard Gordon suddenly exhibits the potential to become a fairly entertaining one, with the disclaimer that the terrain still contains an abundance of storytelling sand traps.
Lest anyone forget the events of season one, pediatrician Barry Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) returned to his birthplace of Abbudin for a family wedding, bringing along his wife (Jennifer Finnegan) and two clueless children (Noah Silver, Anne Winters), who were apparently raised without the benefit of books or cable news. When Barry’s father, the country’s ruling strongman, unexpectedly died, the prodigal son uncomfortably found himself trying to talk sense into his hotheaded brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), eventually leading a thwarted coup against him.
Season two opens several months later, with Barry in prison and Jamal dawdling about carrying out a death sentence against him. Barry’s family frets, and Jamal’s wife (Moran Atias) and advisors urge him to act. It gives away little to say that the producers find a not-unpredictable way of keeping the narrative alive, while delving into a very Syria-like subplot involving rebels working to undermine Jamal, and the question of how far he’ll go to neutralize them. That includes the troubled leader trying to swing a major deal with China, to whom he dismisses the insurgents as “a few troublemakers.”
After receiving some legitimate criticism for the show’s depiction of the Arab world, “Tyrant” finds more nuance in these episodes, as well as some pretty overt biblical overtones in Barry’s emotional arc. And while the character remains a rather tepid protagonist, his role in driving the story is mitigated by the unfolding events in Abbudin, which has become a surrogate for familiar problems among oppressive Middle East regimes that the U.S. has frequently found itself supporting, mostly due to fear of the alternative.
By the fourth episode, moreover, the series has incorporated several new elements that bring an almost soapy quality to the proceedings — although the “Dynasty,” in this case, is of a more literal variety. Fortunately, the uneasy crown sits on the head of Barhom, who wears the mix of frustration and ruthlessness particularly well.
Granted, the region’s history is too tortured to be done justice in the context of a TV drama, even one that’s in fictionalized form and that capitalizes on all the creative latitude FX provides. But after some of the groan-inducing moments elicited as Barry and his brood naively slipped further and further into events so clearly beyond them last year, this season the series has at least found a path forward lighted by several much-needed oases of logic.