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FX’s ‘Tyrant’ has 'Godfather' Going Middle East
June 23, 2014  | By Eric Gould

The ratings success of last year’s CBS supernatural thriller series Under the Dome proved that airing in summer is no longer a TV demotion. That show got some of the top ratings of the year. So the hot-season premiere of FX’s Tyrant isn’t a penalty, and is all the more appropriate, set in the Middle East as it is, with plenty of desert landscape and simmering emotion to go around.

The tale (premiering Tuesday night at 10 ET on FX) of a Michael Corleone-styled son unwillingly returned to his father’s dictatorship has it dramatic merits, and even a Godfather-like theme full of sorrow to go along. The pilot, which mostly sets the series table for situation and characters, is written by executive producer Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24), and you could do worse for a lavishly set summer diversion.

But first, only if you’re willing to occasionally suffer the "tell-don’t-show" method coming out of the writers' room into the characters' mouths. Just in case we had no idea that dictatorships are thought justified by the dictators, we find self-exiled son Bassam Al-Fayeed, now a mild-mannered American pediatrician known as Barry (Adam Raynor, top), strolling through the palace gardens with his Al-Assad-Hussein-typed father. He has reluctantly returned for his nephew’s wedding. Father (Nasser Faris with Raynor, right) laments, “After everything I’ve given the people, they’re still not satisfied. They say they want freedom. To do what? Kill each other? I give them order and prosperity, and all they want is chaos”.

What’s a taken for granted autocrat to do?

And later, Barry’s heir-apparent older brother and Sonny Corleone equivalent, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom with Raynor, left) performs an aggressive manicure, er, slicing, on a royal spy – delivered nude in a steam room a la Viggo Mortensen’s knife fight in 2007's Eastern Promises. Barry intervenes, pulling Jamal off. He says negotiate first. Jamal mockingly asks, “Talk to him?? You mean like Oprah? How do you feel? You had a bad childhood? Oh, me too, let’s hug it out.”

In case you've forgotten Uday and Qusay Hussein, dictators' sons are reliably better sociopaths than their fathers.

Despite those and other moments where the producers can’t trust their audience to get it, Tyrant may turn out to be worth following for the summer. Barry’s return home finds a timely analog of Middle Eastern governments in political chaos, and it also creates a tank for the west and the old world to collide.

There are several well executed moments in the premiere that will make it worthwhile sticking around to find out – not the least of which is the setting itself. The pilot has majestic locations shot in Morocco which substitutes for the fictional middle east Al-Fayeed dictatorship of Abbudin. Rooms are filled with rich, Islamic design patterns and textures that are visually stunning and allude to the web of the royal intrigue that begins to surround Barry and his family.

Played close to the vest by Raynor, Barry is a taciturn, mild-mannered American dad — he’s learned to weather his teenaged children’s sarcasm and contempt much like Showtime’s hangdog Ray Donovan. (Although, so far, Tyrant doesn’t achieve the ingenuity or daring of that show. It’s played straight down the middle like a big network event.)

He’s also got an American blonde for a wife (Jennifer Finnigan), and she has the Oprah thing, too. But pry as she might, she can’t make Barry open up. Barry has his reasons for having fled his country and culture at the age of 16, and some of that is surprisingly revealed at the end of Tuesday night’s premiere. Most of the time he’s mild and deferential, but we get glimpses, in the pilot, of the fruit having not fallen too far from the tree. He might not turn out to be the reserved American he’s tried so hard to become.

The Tyrant in the title may turn out to mean the son, not the father.
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