FX’s drama “Tyrant,” a story about the brutal ruling family of a fictional Middle Eastern country and the son who tries to modernize the regime, has come under heavy criticism in the early going. The show cast a non-Arab actor, Adam Rayner, in its lead role. It has relied heavily on exhausting sexual assault storylines. And perhaps most frustratingly, it has treated its setting as a staging ground to rehash “The Godfather,” rather than as opportunity to tell a truly new story.
But for a group of Muslim and Arab policy experts who have begun consulting on the show, “Tyrant” is a chance to prove that their communities can be effective partners for Hollywood — and maybe even to shift the show’s focus.
At a panel at the Television Critics Association press tour this week, the consultants outlined both their criticisms of “Tyrant” and their hopes for the show.
“I think any show that deals with tyranny in the Middle East, if it can humanize the people’s struggle against tyranny, at the end it will be good,” suggested Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Tyrants … the way we view them here in America is we view them as a product of culture and religion. But it’s beyond that. It’s much deeper than that. There’s a history of tyranny in the Middle East. There’s obviously a history of Western support for tyrants in the Middle East.”
To that end, Ramy Yaacoub, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said he would have preferred a storytelling approach that focused more on advocates for reform and new regimes.
“I want to see the real agents of change in the Middle East,” he suggested. “I have seen it with my own eyes. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen that the generation that is a little bit older than I am did not cause change and they were not the challengers of tyrants, but rather the younger generation. I’d love to see more of that because it’s more realistic … I’d like to see more agency for the Arab community, like individuals. I’d like to see more of that.”
“Tyrant” does have a recurring storyline about Fauzi Nadal (Fares Fares), a dissident journalist and his daughter Samira (Mor Polanuer), who is drawn to a more radical movement against the regime. But their plotlines are secondary to the show’s focus on the ruling regime. Other ordinary characters who resist tyranny tend to show up for a single episode, rather than evolving into more significant characters.
Aseel Albanna, an architect who left Iraq in 1991 for what she initially intended to be a vacation, only to see her stay extended until the aftermath of the United States’ second war in Iraq, said she was initially concerned about how women are portrayed in “Tyrant,” though she felt that the show had improved from the pilot.
“I said, “Howard [Gordon, the showrunner for “Tyrant”], you have three female characters, Arab characters … And the first one is getting raped, right? All right. The second one is serving tea, and the third one got slapped in the hospital scene,” she told critics.
Al-Marayati acknowledged that in a Hollywood environment where the Middle East and Islam are “only about terrorism, it’s only about violence, it’s only about abusing women,” “Tyrant” might feel exhausting. But he suggested that however frustrating the show felt, it made sense for advocates to engage with Gordon and the creative team.
“We had this incident of ‘Alice in Arabia’ [an ABC Family show that was canceled before it even went into production] where there was a protest. And that created a chilling effect,” he said. “And we’re concerned that we’re stopping the creative process. We want more shows about Arabs and Muslims so that it humanizes not only Arabs and Muslims overseas, but us as Arab Americans and American Muslims. And we find very little opportunity. So this is an opportunity.”