I don’t know if “Tyrant,” the new series from “Homeland” executive producer Howard Gordon, is lucky or unlucky to arrive in a new period of Middle Eastern unrest. The troubles in Iraq, Syria and Egypt create a sense of urgency around the new FX series, but also create the expectation that it might say something important.
And can we be honest here? It doesn’t.
“Homeland” often benefits from the sense that it is not only borrowing from current crises in the Middle East, but also predicting them. It gets more credit than it deserves: When is there not some sort of crisis in the Middle East?
Given: The “Homeland” writers should get royalties every time a Fox News commentator claims Bowe Bergdahl is a real-life Nicholas Brody. But overall, “Homeland” works better as a thriller that shrewdly exploits a real-life drama than as any kind of commentary on that drama.
The same goes for “Tyrant.” It tells the tale of Barry Al Fayeed, the son of Middle Eastern despot who leaves his unnamed, fictionalized homeland to become a Los Angeles pediatrician, then makes the mistake of returning home for a nephew’s wedding.
Once he’s back, they keep pulling him back in, Michael Corleone style, and soon enough he’s forced to accept opulent gifts (like the private jumbo jet home provided by his father) and help his brother decide how to keep a dissident from blowing up the wedding.
Will “Tyrant” help you better understand the Arab World? Nope. It exists to skillfully exploit your fears and prejudices about Middle Eastern oligarchies. Some of these are perfectly valid: It doesn’t feel at all unrealistic that Barry’s brother Jamal, the country’s tyrant-in-waiting, blasts Aerosmith from his Lamborghini while demanding women be “pure” and wear hijabs.
“Tyrant” goes way over the top at some points, particularly when Jamal forces one of those hijab-wearing women to perform oral sex on him while he’s behind the wheel. The premiere of “Tyrant” badly overreaches three times, by my count, and each time involves forced sex. Jamal’s frequent rapes are a convenient metaphor for the way powerful men abuse women the world over, but one rape scene would have more than sufficed.
FX’s “Louie” recently advanced the debate on TV portrayals of rape by showing how even supposedly likable characters can, through awful miscalculations, do things they clearly shouldn’t. But “Tyrant” regresses by making sex crimes just another writerly shortcut, a means of making us hate a character a little faster than we would have hated him otherwise. It feels cheap.
Some of the other writing is very good, however. The pilot is filled with conflicts that could easily sustain long arcs: marital troubles, a secret gay affair — all the standard soapy stuff, successfully executed.
Speaking of executions: A ribbon-cutting flashback thoughtfully foreshadows the day a despot first asks one of his sons to kill for him. There’s a very strong twist to the ribbon-execution arc that helps us understand why Barry sometimes seems so stiff.
Also, his reaction to the plane gift is one of the highlights of the pilot. It gives us our first sense that he deserves some emotional investment.
One other point about our investment in Barry: The show has made the questionable choice to cast a white actor, Adam Rayner, as the son of a Middle Eastern man. Perhaps the producers thought his light eyes and complexion would make him easier for white viewers to relate to, which may open them up to charges of whitewashing.
Those are very valid concerns, but I think the casting actually works. Barry’s mother is white and British, which helps explain his appearance. And his looks make him seem like even more of an outsider in his native land, an important component of the story.
I might feel differently if I thought anything about “Tyrant” mattered in any important sense, but I don’t. It’s just a good story, cleverly told. It’s not going to resolve the troubles in the Middle East, but then again, neither has anything else.
“Tyrant” premieres at 10/9c on FX.