When “Homeland” premiered three years ago, it was widely seen as an apology of sorts for the Bush-era politics of “24,” the creator’s previous show. That writer, Howard Gordon, has now launched a new series, “Tyrant,” a Middle East–set drama that seems to have been conceived as a further apology. Where “24” and “Homeland” pit its heroes—and antiheroes—against terrorists and corrupt Middle Eastern leaders, “Tyrant,” which premiered Tuesday night on FX, places Arab characters at its center. It’s an ambitious premise for American television, even for cable: The son of a dictator returns to his fictional home country after 20 years in the United States, bringing his all-American family with him. This might be laudable, even groundbreaking, except for one thing: “Tyrant”’s characters are cut out of the same cardboard as the bad guys and bit players of Gordon’s earlier shows. Muslim advocacy groups have worried that the show would be offensive, but, more than anything, “Tyrant” is just offensively boring.
The problems begin with Adam Rayner, who plays the show’s protagonist, Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed. After fleeing Abbudin—the fictional country standing in for pre-civil war Syria or Saddam-era Iraq—as a teenager, Bassam has made a life as a pediatrician in Pasadena, trying to forget that his father once used chemical weapons against his own people. After years of estrangement, he reluctantly brings his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and two children to Abbudin for the first time to attend his nephew’s wedding. (For some reason, Bassam’s wife doesn’t understand why her husband might have a complicated relationship with his war criminal father, and is hoping the two might reconnect.) Bassam is horrified by his family’s corruption and secretly afraid he is no better than them. The role requires an actor who can show the potential for brutality beneath his righteous outrage. Rayner mostly just glowers.
This is particularly disappointing because Rayner is a white, English actor cast in an Arab role. The producers’ claims that they couldn’t find an Arab actor with the skills to carry a show would be easier to forgive if Adam Rayner was giving a Bryan Cranston–level performance. Instead, he’s just a pretty white guy in a suit, easily overshadowed by the (actually Middle-Eastern) actors around him.
The show’s troubled production—recounted in a cover story in The Hollywood Reporter—seems at times more interesting than “Tyrant” itself. It began as a partnership between Gordon and Gideon Raff, the creator of “Prisoners of War,” the Israeli show that “Homeland” was based on. They signed up Ang Lee to direct the pilot and sparked a bidding war between HBO and FX. Then Lee dropped out, and the showrunners struggled to find a replacement. They filmed the pilot in Morocco, then had to relocate to Israel and re-film some scenes there. Raff left after clashing with Gordon over the show’s direction.
The result is a show that has no idea what it wants to be: a family soap opera or a political thriller? “Tyrant” traffics in obvious shorthand so that we won’t notice the stale narrative. In case we couldn’t figure out that Jamal, Bassam’s powerful brother, is a bad man, he rapes two women—one of them, twice—in the pilot episode. (And how else would we know that this is a serious drama without graphic scenes of sexual assault?) Strangely, the show’s characters all speak English, with an occasional “Salaam Alaikum” thrown in for flavor. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been surprising, but FX currently airs “The Americans” and “The Bridge,” which use subtitled Russian and Spanish, respectively, in half their scenes; the English dialogue here seems less like a sop to American viewers than just a further sign of laziness. Taking most of its storytelling cues from The Godfather and other American crime dramas, “Tyrant” is proof that grafting Hollywood genres onto unfamiliar settings is not the way to produce compelling drama about the Arab world.