From shifting filming locations to shifting directors, the first season of FX’s Middle East-set “Tyrant” was known to have just as much drama off-screen as it did on-screen. Much of the former seems to have been smoothed out for season two, as Variety TV critic Brian Lowry notes in his review. But that hasn’t stopped co-creator Howard Gordon from stressing that, despite a resume that includes “Homeland” and “24,” this political/family drama about two brothers vying to be the one to carry on their father’s legacy is the toughest show he’s ever done.
With “Tyrant’s” season two premiere now aired, Gordon elaborated on this for Variety, as well as about the show’s real-world connection and comparisons to a certain HBO show about a battle for control of a throne.
“Tyrant” airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on FX. Fans should stop reading if they have not seen the season two premiere.
You’ve called “Tyrant” the toughest show you’ve ever done. Do you think that’s still true for season two?
It was easier this year, but some of the same challenges that we had last year have continued this year. But, I think we’re all a lot happier with the creative direction it’s taken.
What are some of those lingering challenges?
It continues to be a show that is treading on some sensitive material politically and theologically, and it is very ambitious because we’re trying to dramatize something that’s confusing to most people because it’s confusing to people who are really living this story. It’s the twin challenge of making something feel authentic and emotionally realistic while at the same time making a very, very complicated situation legible to an audience and dramatically legible. It’s challenging.
And at the same time, it’s asking a lot of questions that people in that part of the world are asking themselves as their countries come apart and they face extremists on either side of them. What we’re happy about this season is the emergence of the voice of the people who are stuck in the middle. And these often violent power plays also begin to have a voice.
How much is the writing staff influenced by what’s going on in the Middle East? Things change there so quickly.
Quite a lot. Not only do we have three different consultants — one in Budapest and two in Los Angeles — but we all monitor what’s going on in the world. Many of the things that we’ve dramatized or a version of them, if anyone cared to draw the line, they could be connected to things that actually happened or are happening.
Obviously there’s a connection to what’s going on in the Middle East, but the battle for power among the families also feels Shakespearean.
I think the thing here is we took this geopolitical fact — the fact that there’s this crazy drama unfolding in the Middle East — and also put people in power and out of power, a family, really. And in many ways, it’s a tragedy because these people are all stuck holding power in a place where power requires doing some very awful things.
It puts people through the wringer of questioning “what’s home, who am I and what’s the price of defending if I decide to stay. What lines do I draw? How do I fight? How much do I fight?” The impulse, which is coming apart at the seams, is to stay and fight and decide what side you’re fighting on — or to flee.
With season two, Barry’s (Adam Rayner) family is back in the United States. How is that going to affect everything?
The whole season has a certain biblical, certain epic idea, where Barry is believed to be dead … [plus] there’s a confluence of events and the country is thrown into a civil war that [his son] Sammy (Noah Silver), and [wife] Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) find themselves in the middle.
Now we’re getting into “Godfather” and “Game of Thrones” territory.
It’s funny, there are themes [in “Thrones”] that very visibly overlap ours. This is about the price of power and what do you lose of yourself in the process? What do you gain in terms of self knowledge and what do you lose in terms of the parts of yourself that you try to hold onto as a good person?
What do you think the appeal is for U.S. audiences to be watching Middle Eastern-set dramas? It’s not like we loved watching Russian-set dramas during the Cold War or German-set drams during World War II.
I’ll tell you after the ratings on Wednesday what people’s appetite for this will be. But I think this sort of flies in the face of conventional wisdom, not just about setting a show in the Middle East but about setting a show outside of the United States. That was rule number one. And if you did, you set in England or something that was in our wheelhouse.
But, all I can do is look at what I’m interested in investigating dramatically and that’s a part of the world … I mean, you can look at the New York Times or any newspaper and see that 60 or 70 percent of the paper is talking about these stories in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Libya and Palestine. I think people can’t help but have a curiosity to make some sense of what’s going on over there. This show, for me anyway, is a way to work out some of my thoughts about that. I hope an audience, while being entertained by a family drama, will get to ask themselves some of the same questions. It was, for me, a way to dramatize what in some way seems to be an unimaginable tragedy.