Along with the significant artistic problems seen in FX’s flaccid new series “Tyrant,” you could add the unfortunate timing of the latest headlines from Iraq, where all has been for naught, perhaps permanently. Nothing could seem less appetizing at the moment than a clumsily written and stultifyingly acted TV drama stocked with tired and terribly broad notions of Muslim culture in a make-believe nation on the brink.
In the pilot episode (premiering Tuesday night), Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris), the frail dictator of a Middle Eastern country called Abbudin, seems to vacillate between remorse for his iron fist (the genocidal gassings, the executions, the indifference to poverty and hunger) and a wistfulness that he’s outlasted many of his contemporaries — Hussein, Gaddafi, Mubarak, et al.
“Tyrant” is produced by Howard Gordon (“Homeland,” “24”) and others who should know how to make somewhat better television. An interesting premise rooted in Arab Spring idealism — what if an heir to a Middle Eastern dictator had a chance to turn his country into a peaceful democracy? — becomes immediately weighed down by depressing ambivalence and hokey story lines. It’s like a telenovela has suffered a head-on collision with Al Jazeera. Everyone staggers away dazed.
Adam Rayner stars as Barry Al-Fayeed, once known as Bassam, the younger of Khaled’s two sons. Barry left Abbudin more than 20 years ago and became a successful pediatrician in Southern California, where he and his American wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), are raising their two teenagers, Sammy and Emma (Noah Silver and Anne Winters). He’s spent a lifetime disavowing his family ties, privately disgusted by his father’s atrocities.
Leery about returning home after all this time, Barry nevertheless agrees to bring his family to the palace for his nephew’s extravagant wedding. Refusing his father’s offer of a private jet to get them there, dutiful Barry is aghast to discover at LAX that every seat on their commercial flight has been bought by the Al-Fayeed regime. It’s the first sign that he should call off the trip, but instead, he fumes in an empty coach class, on principle, while his children live it up in first class. (My kingdom for a cable drama that doesn’t include petulant teens disobeying their parents for the sake of ensuing subplots.)
As soon as Barry and his family land in Abbudin, something about “Tyrant” begins to feel strangely unfinished and slapped together, like a show that’s not quite ready to go on, as if it were being written a page at a time while the cast and crew waited around. “Tyrant” doesn’t give a viewer an authentic sense of place or culture and its gravitas comes off as counterfeit goods.
A predictable tale begins to unspool. Jamal Al-Fayeed (Ashraf Barhom), Barry/Bassam’s swarthy older brother and the family’s heir apparent, is initially presented as a full-blown stereotype — a sadistic rapist (two such scenes in the first episode are needlessly cruel), a temperamental torturer and a conspicuous consumer of sports cars. He has endured a lifetime of being bullied by their father, who has always viewed Jamal as a disappointment. It soon becomes clear that the elder Al-Fayeed hopes that Barry/Bassam will become the next ruler instead.
You don’t need me to tell you that events transpire in the first four episodes that point “Tyrant” in precisely that direction. After getting a guilt trip from a childhood friend who has become Abbudin’s best-known intellectual dissident, Barry begins to wonder if he can effect change in his homeland before it falls into chaos. “Won’t there be blood on my hands no matter how far I run?” Barry asks his wife.
Rayner gives a stiff, coolly disinterested (and uninteresting) performance, the opposite of what “Tyrant” desperately needs in a protagonist. A few episodes in, you’re still rooting for the family to race back to the airport and get the heck out of Dodge. (“I feel like we’re walking away from an excellent college-essay experience here,” says the teenage son, but don’t listen to him, he’s just horny for one of the palace security guards.) After so much good stuff lately from FX (“The Americans,” “Louie,” “Fargo” — I could go on) it’s sad to see it launch a dud, and sadder still to shoot it down.
(80 minutes) premieres
Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.