With Iraq spiraling out of control in a conflict where everyone involved has a compromised and troubling past, there's no better time for a TV series about the son of a brutal Middle Eastern dictator who returns home from America ready to oppose his father's tactics.
It's too bad that series has to be FX's Tyrant, which fumbles the opportunity to present a nuanced, complex take on the subjects of governance in the Middle East and order versus freedom. Instead, viewers get a family soap opera masquerading as something more; a gritty fairy tale in which the Americanized characters are the most virtuous and figures regularly act in ways that make little sense beyond furthering the story.
Blue-eyed British actor Adam Rayner is Bassam Al-Fayeed, a pediatrician in Los Angeles with an interesting pedigree: His father, the dictator of Abbudin, a fictional Middle Eastern country, is nicknamed "The Butcher" for his brutal tactics in putting down a rebellion years ago. Bassam, who calls himself "Barry," brings his blonde American wife and U.S.-raised kids to face his family history when a relative's wedding prompts a return to his homeland.
Before long, circumstances arise that might require Bassam to run the country himself, mirroring the rise of a certain brutal dictator now fighting for his regime in Syria (except that Bashar Assad was an ophthalmologist). A surprising flashback sequence reveals that Bassam may be just as capable of ruthlessness as his father, implying that their taste for violence might be something that's in the family's blood.
Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations already have criticized Tyrant for stereotyping Arab and Muslim culture with such sequences. On that score, they have a point: Most every Arab character outside of Bassam is seriously flawed, including a murderous brother who is first seen raping a woman, a ruthless general whose solution to every problem is overwhelming deadly force, and a chubby, entitled nephew whose casual brutality nearly matches his father's.
"The entire premise lends itself to broad stereotypes," says Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR. "When you create a fictitious country, it becomes a stand-in for all Arab and Muslim countries. I actually walked out [of a screening] during one of the gratuitous rape scenes."
"Barry" is consistently positioned as the only voice of reason in the Al-Fayeed family, which also includes Alice Krige in a wasted role as his British-born mother, Amira. After deciding to spend some time in Abbudin helping his brother stabilize the country, Bassam tries to bring Western-style political ideas to bear, discouraging officials from killing protesters and ending a hostage standoff by promising mercy to the hostage-takers.
This is a show about the Middle East as seen through Americanized eyes, with little of the nuances in Arab or Muslim culture on display. The unfortunate effect is a constant, not-so-subtle message: If these people would just act like Americans, everything would be so much better.
Piled on top of this simplistic dynamic is a series of decisions made by the characters that seem utterly baffling.
At first, Bassam is eager to leave the country as soon as possible, hopping on a plane so quickly, the military has to intervene to keep it from taking off with his family. After an attempt is made on his brother's life and he saves the wife of his nephew in a hostage negotiation, Bassam decides to stay in the country a while and eventually asks his wife to stay, too — with no discussion of how dangerous that decision might be for their children.
In fact, even though the country is teetering on edge of rebellion during many episodes, no one in Bassam's immediate family acts as if he is worried about his own safety. And when they arrive in Abbudin, they seem to know almost nothing about the country — as if at least one of them wouldn't have hopped on Google to read up a little on this dictatorship ruled by their relatives.
The series was created by Israeli director and writer Gideon Raff, who also created the Israeli series Prisoners of War and helped develop its American version, Showtime's Homeland (Raff and original director Ang Lee left the project as it was being developed). Howard Gordon, a producer on Fox's 24, worked with Raff on Homeland and now serves as top producer on Tyrant.
So it's no surprise that Tyrant also boasts some of the weaknesses from its creators' other work, including Homeleand's constant struggle to make its teenage characters anything more than one-dimensional narcissists.
Bassam's kids are apparently the two sides of his own id: Son Sammy loves his family's wealth and power, caring little for the oppression that makes it possible, while daughter Emma hates the whole idea and spends most episodes glowering like a child deprived of her cellphone for a day.
Despite all that weighs against it, Tyrant remains an interesting show with lots of promise. The idea of a man torn between the brutal legacy of his family and more egalitarian beliefs is a compelling one. And talented performers such as Israeli Arab actor Ashraf Barhom, who plays Bassam's murderous brother Jamal, bring humanity to characters written as more simplistic figures.
Given the current state of affairs in the Middle East — where countries like Iraq and Syria are embroiled in conflicts in which every major player has serious flaws — TV cries out for a House of Cards-style drama set in the region that can highlight all these questions about morality, religion and power in a quality setting.
Tyrant can still be that show. But it must first dispense with its simplistic notions of heroism and villainy, allowing a new vision of the Middle East outside the American gaze to emerge on television.