TV Review - Tyrant

Ashraf Barhom (left) and Adam Rayner
ask who is the tyrant in "Tyrant" on FX
The first two episodes are a bit rough, but, by Episode 3, I was into this series and wanted to see where it goes. I'm completely enthralled and not by the character with whom the show starts.

Adam Rayner stars as Barry Al-Fayeed, a pediatrician living in the United States but who was born in the fictional, Arab and Middle Eastern country called Abbudin. The country is an amalgamation of various Arab countries from Egypt to Syria, but it probably mostly approximates Iraq. Barry is the son of Abbudin's President, a man who definitely comes off as a Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein-type, but Barry is far from being anything like Hussein's real-life sons, at least on the surface Barry is totally Americanized. Barry isn't even his birth name, i.e. Alexander Siddig. He's secular, liberal and peace-loving.

Ashraf Barhom stars as Jamal Al-Fayeed, the older brother of Barry. Whereas Barry left to study medicine in America, Jamal stayed and was basically groomed to be his father's successor. In that respect, Jamal is more akin to Hussein's sons. He's secular, yet he's probably closer to Islam, but he's entitled, spoiled and arrogant.

What the first episode does well is distinguish the two brothers from each other in surprising ways. Barry is a sensitive and caring doctor. Jamal is a brutal and aggressive, potential dictator. Except, it's revealed that despite their dispositions, Barry is stronger than Jamal.

This is exemplified by Jamal being introduced as a rapist. He's not only a rapist, but a rapist of his daughter-in-law. In fact, he rapes her with her family listening in the next room under guard by whom might be considered Abbudin's Secret Service.

It's difficult for a character to come back from that, but the show tries. FX's The Shield was successful in starting a character in a bad position and then having that character come back in terms of having the audience accept or even care about that character. The key difference is that Vic Mackey on The Shield did a horrible thing as an extreme way of self-preservation or protection. Here, Jamal does a horrible thing, just to be cruel or domineering.

Creator Gideon Raff (Prisoners of War and Homeland) and the developing writer-producers Howard Gordon (The X-Files and 24) and Craig Wright (Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters) might not intend Jamal to last as long as Vic Mackey. Episode 6 suggests that they might try to back Jamal into a corner in order to eliminate him. Yet, from Episode 3 to Episode 6, Barry and Jamal's relationship stands as the most compelling thing about the series.

Eventually, their father dies and Jamal assumes the role of President. Barry is forced to stay and work for his brother's cabinet. Various issues arise, which mirror real-life issues that have been in the news out of the Middle East and Jamal always consults Barry for advice. The show becomes like an American, liberal fantasy where the leader of this Arab country is guided by American liberal ideas, which Barry represents.

It allows the writers to weave a narrative where the path and outcome of problems in an Arab country go the way peace-loving, liberal Americans would prefer. However, there are regularly meetings between the President and his cabinet where debates on these issues are had. The person who's always pushing back against Barry is his uncle, General Tariq Al-Fayeed, played by Raad Rawi. Tariq resists what Barry wants, which is to change Abbudin into a democratic nation. Tariq wants to maintain the merciless dictatorship.

This political tug-of-war is very compelling to watch. It's also interesting to watch Jamal struggle with the pressure of being president with all this responsibility that he perhaps wasn't ready to have, while also dealing with his brother's influence and his father's lack of influence, creating a need of love that always needs to be filled.

What the second episode gets wrong, which subsequent episodes don't really reconcile. Barry Al-Fayeed comes to Abbudin from America with his family. His wife is Molly, played by Jennifer Finnigan. His eldest child is his teenage son named Sammy, played by Noah Silver. His teenage daughter is Emma, played by Anne Winters. Barry's American family, particularly Molly, doesn't understand why Barry doesn't want to go see his Abbudin family.

I get that Molly is upset that Barry doesn't talk about Abbudin and what happened to him there. Yet, Molly has access to the Internet and clearly Barry is well-known because he's the son of a President. In Episode 4, Molly and her children reference a horrible incident that happened 20 years ago where the President of Abbudin launched a gas attack against his own people. The show opens with a bombing in Abbudin against the President.

All of which, Molly and her children could have read about on the Internet, so I don't get how Molly can't look at Barry and see how much he doesn't want to be there. I also didn't get how Molly isn't insisting everyday that they hop on a plane and leave.

The politics are basically just the rich versus the poor but set in a Middle Eastern milieu. All that, however, gets pushed to the side past Episode 6 when the focus shifts to Abbudin's first democratic election for President, which Barry organizes despite it threatening Jamal's power. This is an interesting and fantastic storyline, but it does push a lot of things to the side, and a lot of characters, namely Barry's American family.

Forget about Emma! She becomes less than an afterthought. Sammy is revealed to be gay and in love with his cousin's friend Abdul, played by Mehdi Dehbi. Yet, that gets dropped like a hot potato and three episodes go by without it being addressed or Sammy barely even being seen. Then, there's Molly who is having the same criticism as Skylar on Breaking Bad.

In that analogy, Rayner has the Walter White role, but Rayner isn't as magnetic as Bryan Cranston. The one with the true magnetism and whose performance I'm way more interested to see is Ashraf Barhom. He's sinister. He's sexy. Yet, he can be sweet and sensitive and like a lost little puppy dog. I'm horrified by him yet at the same time hooked.

The ensemble cast is great as well. Alice Krige plays Barry and Jamal's mother. She has to be wife of a dictator and balance the contradictions and conflicts within her family. Justin Kirk plays John Tucker, an agent with the State Department or else an ambassador who is the middle-man for Barry and Jamal and their relationship with the United States. Cameron Gharaee plays Jamal's son who at times is like Uday and Qusay Hussein wrapped into one, but who just wants to be with his wife and not disappoint his father. Alexander Karim plays Ihab Rashid, the son of the Sheikh who has been at odds with the Al-Fayeed family for years and who represents the youthful protest against the dictatorship. Fares Fares plays Fauzi, an old friend of Barry who calls him out on his hypocrisy.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Tuesdays at 10PM on FX.


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