As soon as the series was announced, Tyrant seemed doomed to be surrounded by controversy. The Homeland-like drama (from Homeland creator Howard Gordon) takes place in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Abbudin. The intentional non-specificity is to ensure that Tyrant isn’t associated with one particular country; as a result, it’s unfortunately a stand-in for just about every country in the region, and concerns have already been raised about the show’s portrayal of its Muslim characters. It doesn’t help that Gordon has already been slammed for Islamophobia or that Tyrant cast a British actor in the lead.
Here’s the thing: Tyrant is full of stereotypes and stock characters, but those problems are evident in all of its characters. Nearly everyone on the show is an annoying bore, and there’s not much reason to root for anyone. It’s as if Gordon tried to skirt the controversy of a heavy subject and controversial setting by creating a show that is too lazy and contrived to get worked up over.
Tyrant has already been positioned to become a critical darling: beyond the drama’s Homeland connection, there’s admirable acting, beautiful locations, high stakes, and heavy emotional beats. But while Tyrant concerned itself with looking good on paper, it forgot to create a story worth telling. It’s strange, because the premise is inherently interesting and dramatic: After a 20-year self-imposed exile from his home country, Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) returns home for his nephew’s wedding. In America, Barry is a pediatrician living in California with his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and their two teenage children, Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Anne Winters). In Abbudin, Barry is Bassam, the son of a much-hated dictator and the youngest brother of a, well, tyrant.
There are some great stories to be told here, like Bassam trying to reconcile his two lives, his two families, and the duality within him. There’s a story about loyalty, and the seductive appeal of the family business Bassam from which trying to distance himself. There are scenes in Tyrant when the potential really shines, when it explores the magnetic pull of family, the conflicts of leadership, and how the people in power are rarely the people who should have power. In the bigger sense, however, Tyrant is kinda just boring.
Bassam wants nothing to do with his family in Abbudin — in case you can’t tell by the way he insists on flying coach when his family reserves the whole plane or stays in a hotel rather than the Al-Fayeed palace, Bassam also mentions it. A lot. So much that it loses all meaning. While Bassam is in Abbudin, his father suddenly dies, and Bassam hops on the first plane back to Los Angeles. They never make it out of the gate, though, which isn’t a spoiler because if Bassam left, that would be the end of the series. Maybe Bassam should have left.
FX intends to shock with Tyrant, I suppose. Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), Bassam’s older brother who takes over after their father dies, is a cruel leader and a vile rapist — there are multiple disturbing scenes in the pilot alone — who cheats on his wife and abuses his power. Unsurprisingly, there are many acts of violence throughout the four episodes sent out (some are meant to be devastating because of the young ages of the victims and the murderers) and an emphasis on public hangings. There are assassination attempts, domestic abuse, and a very weird scene involving road head. But it’s not as shocking as it hopes to be. Instead, it feels like more of the same, but in a different setting.
There are definite character issues. Molly is confused and frustrated by her husband’s conflicted feelings about Abbudin, although she has obviously known about his past for a while. Sammy is gay, probably only so the show can coast on the inherent drama — a gay youth in a country that isn’t accepting — instead of fleshing out his other characteristics. Emma … well, Emma is a character that exists. Bassam’s Abbudin family is more interesting by comparison, and Tyrant would be a better show if it focused more on the strange and confusing relationship between Bassam and Jamal, a brotherhood that tackles every emotion in a single conversation. To Tyrant‘s credit, there is more of this as the show goes on — and each episode does improve on the last, especially when it comes to depictions of Muslim culture, subtle character moments, and warped sexual politics, but the show still feels like a chore to get through.
It’s hard to fully explain the major problems with Tyrant because it’s honestly not a bad drama, though its poor qualities become clear in contrast to the greatness of FX’s other dramas, like Fargo and The Americans. Tyrant‘s biggest fault is that it tries too hard to be an Important Show and to tell an Important Story while also trying too hard not to offend. For all the ways it’s attempting to shock and awe, Tyrant is far too safe. It’s a standout script in a TV writing class, but it’s still too unpolished to make a great show. It has all the right elements but suffers from a poor execution, one that reads as if the writers decided the built-in drama of a war-torn nation was enough to anchor a series and refused to go deeper.