FX’s most recent high-low-minded drama, “Tyrant,” which premiered last night, is set in a fictional country called Abbudin. You might think that the show made that creative choice so the show, about the dictatorial family that rules Abbudin, could achieve escape velocity from the cliches that so often dominate our discussions about the Middle East. After watching the first four episodes of the show, I can tell you that would be a mistake.
“Tyrant” is certainly making its bow at a relevant moment in the news cycle, given the catastrophes unfolding in the region in which the show is set. But the show, about Barry Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner) the son of a dictator who returns home only to find his stay extended, has the misfortune of arriving in an environment when the bar for creative fiction about Middle Eastern countries has been pushed skyward by a number of talented writers. By comparison to their work, rather than to cable news, “Tyrant” has rich sets, but a real poverty of ideas.
Take “The Mirage,” by Matt Ruff, set in a world where a secularized United Arab States is the dominant world power, while North America has fragmented into a morass of warring states. Ruff thought so deeply about the world he was creating that he even considered who would be the reigning matinee idol in such an environment, settling on the Israeli actor Oded Fehr (who “Tyrant” might have done well to employ).
G. Willow Wilson, who is currently writing the Ms. Marvel comic books with a Muslim heroine, offered up another strong entry with “Alif the Unseen.” That novel is set in an unnamed country, rather than a purely fictional one, but Wilson offered up a novel approach by having jinn show up in the midst of a tech-aided democracy movement. And Saladin Ahmed’s “Throne of the Crescent Moon” invented a fictional ancient kingdom and spent time introducing readers to the details of its capital city.
Unlike these revivifying books, “Tyrant” is a realist show rather than a fantasy. But even by the different conventions of their genres, “Tyrant” lacks the energy to wrench away from cliche and to achieve real insight.
The show is being run by Howard Gordon, a veteran of “24″ and “Homeland.” While it may be progress that “Tyrant” tries to understand why someone might turn to terrorism, territory Gordon explored in “Homeland,” it is more than a little exhausting that so many of the characters in “Tyrant” are terrorists, and that terrorism is, once again, so central to the plot.
Similarly, “Tyrant” wants to get at issues of gender inequality. But the way it gets at this subject is to turn Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), the heir to the presidency of Abbudin, into a vicious sexual sadist who rapes an impoverished unknown woman, and violates his daughter-in-law on her wedding night so his son will turn against her for not being a virgin. Gender inequality seems more like Jamal’s problem than part of Abbudin’s culture.
As Maureen Ryan points out in a cri de coeur at Huffington Post, the show treats the women the same way Jamal does: as instruments. Watching the first four episodes of “Tyrant,” I found myself longing for Haifaa Al Mansour’s gentle, funny 2012 feature “Wadjda,” about a little girl who wants to win a Koran-recitation competition so she can buy a bike. Nobody gets raped in “Wadjda,” but the movie, which focuses on women’s physical mobility in Saudi Arabia, manages to say more about women’s mobility, position in marriage, relationships with immigrant workers and with each other in 98 minutes than “Tyrant” does in more than 160.
There are plenty of other failures of imagination in “Tyrant,” many of which read like a lack of faith in the audience. As a number of other critics have pointed out, the show is conducted almost entirely in English, even though FX has shows that contain lengthy dialogue in both Spanish and Russian. As Dan Fienberg argues at length, it is utterly bizarre that FX cast Rayner, a charisma-free British American actor in the lead role of the doctor who returns home to Abbudin, particularly when it has the wildly talented Lebanese actor Fares Fares on staff.
If these timid moves were in service of a more audacious concept or story, they might have been worthwhile sacrifices. Instead, “Tyrant” feels less like an act of powerful imagination and more like the recreation of a Generic Middle East (it was shot in Tel Aviv), where everyone is oppressed, except the tacky gluttons who are blowing their money in nightclubs. Everyone speaks in cliches, whether they are defending their right to Dom Perignon or talking about winning over survivors of the regime’s gas attacks or overseas audiences.
And the show, in keeping with the long-running television vogue for explaining repulsive people, veers towards moral relativism. Having established Jamal as a serial rapist, it is genuinely bizarre that “Tyrant” spends subsequent episodes worrying about his sexual health. It is nice that a prep-school aged Barry was horrified by his father’s use of chemical weapons, but against tens of thousands dead, are we really supposed to be this concerned with his feelings?
In indulging in this fraying trope, “Tyrant” has not just made television that feels repetitive. It has played into the same political idea that animate so much of Gordon’s career and foreign policy discussion in Washington: that Middle Eastern countries are catastrophic kleptocracies run by hopelessly irrational actors who badly need sorting out by enlightened Western democracies.
The show’s sole saving grace at present may be an American diplomat, John Tucker, played with characteristic reptilian charm by Justin Kirk, who exists to puncture Barry’s naivete, while suggesting how quickly American idealism fades away in the presence of a posting that comes with a good beach.
If FX and Gordon had really wanted to make a radical, imaginative, empathetic show about the Middle East, they might have started from the ground up, or with women, or with economics rather than national security. Sadly, through the first four issues of “Tyrant,” such courage seems like it will remain confined to the page, and to the authors of fantasy, who turn out to be bolder thinkers than the makers of realistic fiction.