About halfway through the pilot episode of FX’s new drama series ‘Tyrant’, a naked man in a sauna assaults and nearly kills a rival. The scene’s inspiration was obvious, but my wife beat me to the pun when she immediately dubbed the show ‘Middle Eastern Promises’. This is how I know I married the right woman.
The series, from ‘Homeland’ producer Gideon Raff, follows Los Angeles pediatrician Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner) as he is invited home to the fictional Mid-East country of Abuddin to attend his nephew’s wedding. Barry has serious reservations about this. His father is actually the country’s strong-arm dictator. Bassam fled for America when he was a teenager and hasn’t been back in decades. In the meantime, he has become fully Americanized, married a white woman and had two average American kids.
Barry is clearly still traumatized by events that transpired in his youth, but his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) is completely oblivious to that as she readies for what she believes will be an exciting vacation and encourages him to reconcile with his father, as if a good hug will fix everything.
As they arrive in the country, they’re greeted by Barry’s older brother Jamal, a total jagoff narcissist playboy. We’re first introduced to him sexually abusing his mistress while the woman’s husband and young son wait for him to finish in the next room. Of course, Molly is charmed by Jamal, and Barry’s teenage son Sammy is instantly enamored by the family’s ostentatious wealth. Neither of them can understand why Barry wants nothing to do with the privileges he’s offered. He insists that they stay in a humdrum hotel rather than the luxurious palace. The only one on Barry’s side is sulky teenage daughter Emma, who wishes she could have stayed home.
When their father hears rumors that terrorists plan to attack the wedding, he sends Jamal (his heir) to deal with it, and insists that Bassam (no one on this side of the family will call him “Barry”) go with him, as a reminder of who he really is and where he comes from. This leads to the bathroom beat-down of a tribal leader with connections to the terrorists. Barry stops Jamal from killing the man, and devises a better plan to invite the man and his family (including the terrorist leader) to the wedding, spread out at different tables. They won’t attack the event if they’re all at it with their wives and children.
Sure enough, the wedding goes off without a hitch (save for Jamal molesting his own son’s new bride during the reception). However, Barry’s father suffers a stroke and dies at the hospital soon afterwards. Barry immediately gathers his family and rushes them to the airport. His wife argues with him about needing to stay for the funeral, and son Sammy acts pissy about leaving as well. Nevertheless, Barry wants to get the hell out of the country as soon as humanly possible.
Unfortunately, they never make it off the tarmac. While they’re at the airport, a drunken Jamal drives his luxury sports car off a cliff. He happened to have been distracted at that moment by his mistress trying to murder him while he forced her to fellate him. Needless to say, Jamal is not a very bright guy. He survives the crash, but is badly injured (and possibly castrated).
Barry’s flight is grounded, and the plane’s captain walks to his seat to hand him a phone. “I told you we shouldn’t have come,” Barry expresses in dismay.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B-
‘Tyrant’ has a fascinating premise and setting. The ‘Pilot’ episode has very glossy production values, and sets up some potentially riveting storylines involving Barry’s family obligations. With the president dead and his heir at the very least sidelined, Barry will reluctantly become embroiled in politics that he wants no part of. I suspect that he’ll find himself turning into the tyrant he tried to escape.
The problem with the series, unfortunately, is a lack of compelling lead characters. Barry himself is a cold fish, and spends the entire episode is a state of nearly catatonic shell shock. This makes sense narratively given the character’s background and experiences, but he never lets viewers crack through his shell.
His wife Molly is… well, she’s an annoying idiot who is completely incapable of taking a hint about anything. She’s been married to this guy for 19 years, yet can’t see that he’s absolutely terrified at the prospect of visiting his family again? This is just a very badly written character.
Likewise, gay son Sammy thinks it’s a brilliant idea to go to an Islamic Middle Eastern country and flirt with a boy his own age in a steam room. Yeah, I get that teenagers are morons, but did the show’s writers really need to saddle Barry with a dipshit teenage son just for the sake of manufacturing some soap opera drama?
Can problems like this be overcome? I hope so. I think the show has potential, but I will need to reserve final judgment until I see how it develops over the next few episodes.