The FX network is willing to take chances and they’ve taken a big one with their latest series, “Tyrant”. This is the channel that has brought us “Sons of Anarchy”, “The Americans”, “American Horror Story” and “Fargo”, each unique and definitely out of the box. All of them have managed to get people talking and “Tyrant” has certainly done that.
Before the pilot even aired, “Tyrant” had its share of critics and not all of the criticism was limited to its contributions to television and pop culture. Arab websites called it anti-Arab television produced by hateful Israeli writers and executives. They were particularly angry with the Israeli-born writer, Gideon Raff, best known for his work on “24” and “Homeland”. Their major complaint was that Muslims would be portrayed as nothing but terrorists, setting off another round of fear-mongering by American viewers. These sites took exception to the portrayal of the show’s characters as stereotypes. Their fears are not completely unfounded, but FX is not producing a documentary with “Tyrant”.
Many of the same criticisms that”Tyrant” is facing were made by Italian-Americans when “The Sopranos” first aired on HBO. The story of a Mob boss who owned a trash hauling business raised concerns that this culture would be portrayed as nothing more than a violent, even murderous, bunch of “goombas”. David Chase chose his characters and plot lines because he knew these people – and he wasn’t making a television show about the contributions Enrico Fermi made to quantum physics. Chase wrote about men with monikers like Pauly “Walnuts”, “Big Pussy” and Johnny “Sack”. Even the last names of the FBI agents ended in a vowel. The viewers loved it and it’s considered one of the best television shows in the history of the small screen.
The premise of “Tyrant” surrounds the al-Fayeed family from the fictitious country of Abuddin, and the head of this family is the dictator who has run the country with a brutal hand. There are two sons, Jamal, who has been at his father’s side his whole life, and Bassam – Barry – a pediatrician who has moved to American to make a life as far removed from his childhood as possible. While the country make be fake and the family a figment of the writer’s imaginations, comparison to real nations and real dictatorships are unavoidable. In this setting, with these characters, it would be naive to think that terrorism wouldn’t be part and parcel to the storyline.
Terrorism as subject matter for television isn’t something new. Weeks after the attacks on 9/11, “24” premiered. Jack Bauer’s sole purpose was to hunt down those who would do harm on American soil and deal with them by some rather unconventional, if not unlawful, means. “Sleeper Cell” dealt with the issue from the perspective of an FBI agent who had infiltrated a terrorist cell, while coping with his own inner struggle as a Muslim. “Homeland”, while making it a part of its storyline, also showed us what happens to American soldiers and POWs in the person of Nicholas Brody. His years in captivity and torture at the hands of the enemy led to a change of heart when he was taken in by one of the leaders to teach English to his young son. Brody became sympathetic to those he once fought against when an American predator drone killed a schoolyard full of children, including the young charge he’d come to love. Even after he was released and brought back home, Brody would steal out to his garage to pray to Allah.
“Tyrant”, however, offers a different side of things, from the perspective of those who were born into and grew up in a culture of dictators and never-ending wars. To do it right, the writers and producers are going to have to give viewers something and someone to care about. An anti-hero, which Barry is meant to be, has to have more than one dimension. An anti-hero, while flawed, has to have an element of “hero”, too. Barry al-Fayeed is flawed and part of his flaws are in his DNA. He’s torn between the family he grew up with and the family he created in the second half of his life in America. What he does with the two halves of his life should be what brings viewers back to watch each week. We’ll need to see something redeeming in his character – something with which we can feel empathy and sympathy. For any TV producer, that task can be daunting, and even more so for the producers of “Tyrant”.
Raff, and co-producer Howard Gordon are attempting to humanize Barry with a sub-plot both have used before – teenage children. Jack Bauer had to take time from saving the world to deal with his daughter, Kim. Nick Brody’s conflicts and personal suffering were made even worse by watching his daughter, Dana, cope with the possibility that her father might be a traitor. In “Tyrant”, Barry has two teenagers – a daughter full of angst and anger, and a son, Sammy, who is trying to come to terms with his homosexuality. As Abuddin is not a real place, the level of tolerance for the LGBT community is undefined, but it’s certain to play an important part of his story. Add to that a wife who can’t get answers from her closed-off husband and the writers have their hands full. The only thing that should make Barry’s job a little easier when it comes to showing a character who’s a little kinder and gentler is that he stands in stark contrast to his brother, Jamal, who, in the first episode alone raped two women – one of whom being his future daughter in law.
Critics of the show have pointed out what they consider flaws in language and casting. The characters speak only English, even when they’re in small groups of their own fellow countrymen. This is a departure from the norm for FX which often has characters speak in their native languages and providing sub-titles on the screen – they do it all the time on “The Bridge.” Heaven knows why the language issue is treated differently in this instance as other programs have had characters speak Arabic, Farsi or Pashto. The other complaint comes from the fact that the cast is made up of very few Middle Easterners – Barry is played by British actor, Adam Rayner. The very nature of the subject matter may answer that question. When the actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (“House of Sand and Fog”), a native of Tehran, appeared in “24” as a member of a terrorist cell she experienced an enormous amount of backlash from her fellow Iranians. She had voiced her own reluctance to take the role at first, citing her fear that it would further promote the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists. She agreed to take the part only after she found that the character was portrayed as a strong and intelligent woman. When the season ended, she told interviewers she would never take a role like that one again, worrying that she’d be pigeon-holed.
From watching the first episode, “Tyrant” seems to have the potential to provide entertaining television. Whether it opens up any real and worthy discussions has yet to be determined. With any hope, the worries about stereotypes will be unfounded.