The upcoming FX series “Tyrant” will put a human face on a region that most of executive producer Howard Gordon‘s shows have painted as the enemy, the show team said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Tuesday.
“We realized we’re part of a world that is not an ocean and several continents away but very much here,” Gordon said. “What we are trying to illustrate and dramatize is just the complexity.”
Gordon executive produces Showtime’s “Homeland” and Fox’s “24” — both of which center around U.S. counterterrorism efforts against targets that are generally Arab or Muslim extremists. But the new FX series is a family drama, set in a fictional country but against the backdrop of the very real politically tense Middle East.
“’24’ was an iteration of that story, was a facet,” Gordon said. “‘Homeland,’ yet another facet — but all facets of the same story, which again I think is the story of our time.”
“Tyrant” follows an American family whose patriarch, Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), is a royal son in an Arab dictatorship. Barry left his home country for America 20 years before the start of the series and returns for his brother’s wedding, only to be met by a coup that thrusts him back into the corrupt government he tried to escape.
“Godfather” overtones notwithstanding — and show producer and creator Gideon Raff is aware of them — the series carries the weight of introducing an American audience to a culture that has been mysterious and often maligned post-9/11.
“This tests some of the conventional tropes of television, which is, do people want to see a show ‘Over There?'” Gordon said.
Writers made a conscious decision not to use native dialogue even where it would make sense in the script, unlike many shows Gordon and Raff have produced.
“We wanted to make this as digestible and welcoming an experience [as possible] – in a strange enough land,” Gordon said.
“I think it’s an opportunity to show an American audience some of the beauty and, as Gideon said, some of the wish fulfillment [of royalty],” he added. “That family is our proxy and our window.”
The “Tyrant” panel also addressed controversy surrounding the casting of Rayner, who is white, to play an Arab man.
“I think we can all agree that if you are having to radically physically transform someone to play a different race or ethnicity … that doesn’t fly anymore,” Rayner said in response to a question from TheWrap. “But we’re not changing my appearance in any way. My mother in the show is English, if you want some kind of explanation for what I look like.”
Rayner also points to Middle Eastern ethnic groups like the Alawites that have similar skin tone and features as him to show his look is plausible for the character.
Producers also addressed the possibility that some viewers might draw a connection between the elite, assimilated Muslim “Barry Al Fayeed” and President Barack Obama — who went by Barry for much of his life and who some Americans continue to believe is Muslim, even though he is Christian.
“Some people will think we’re referring to Obama. We’re absolutely not,” Raff said.
“The honest reason that I chose the name ‘Barry’ is because it is so dorky, and going from that to tyrant is awesome.”
Production on “Tyrant” begins in March in Tel Aviv, Israel, and the series is set to premiere in June.