Note: The following review goes into detail about the episode. SPOILER ALERT!
Leading up to the premiere of FX’s new Middle Eastern political drama Tyrant, all people could seem to talk about was how this show would basically be a retelling of The Godfather, with a very appropriately modern twist. Comparing a show that hasn’t even aired yet with one of the greatest films of all time is quite a heavy burden to be saddled with and this pilot episode does struggle a bit with this comparison. There are a few moments that will certainly remind many of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, but thankfully the pilot has enough to show that it may be able to tell a compelling story going forward.
The show centers around Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), a family man who fled the fictional country of Abbudin twenty years ago. His father, Khaled (Nasser Faris), is the iron-fisted ruler of Abbudin while Barry’s sadistic older brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) is the next in line to the throne. Barry spent those years becoming a doctor and building a family with his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan). Now after all of this time he finds himself persuaded to return to Abbudin for his nephew’s wedding.
Here lies the first problem I had with the pilot episode: nothing we see in this episode’s present day moments or the flashbacks to Barry’s childhood make me believe that Barry would ever return to Abbudin, especially for his nephew’s wedding. The flashbacks (more on those later) contain some seriously messed up events and as we see in the rest of the episode, things haven’t exactly gotten much better. The rest of his family, Molly and their kids Emma and Sammy, also seem pretty nonplussed about travelling to a Middle Eastern dictatorship that has surely featured heavily on the news in the past. Barry comes off as an extremely closed-off person who has managed to stay solid for 20 years and refrain from discussing anything relating to Abbudin with his wife, so him suddenly deciding to return seems a bit off.
Of course if Barry didn’t return to Abbudin, we’d be stuck with a fairly boring show, so the flimsy reasoning is something we’re just going to have to live with. If you can get over this bout of illogical thinking, things get a lot better once we actually get to Abbudin. The first thing you’ll likely notice is how visually striking the show is. The sweeping shots of Abbudin’s skyline and the palace were very impressive and different from many other shows currently airing, so I’m expecting Tyrant to play on this strength going forward.
Barry quickly finds himself thrusted back into family life as he meets up with his brother and father in quick succession. Out of all the characters introduced here, Jamal is the real attention grabber considering he is an absolutely despicable human being with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. That may seem like quite a strong statement but in the course of an hour we see him raping a woman, attempting to cut off a man’s fingers, sexually assaulting his new daughter-in-law, and a few other horrible acts. He’s an absolute monster, one more than capable of becoming a tyrant.
Khaled Al-Fayeed proves to be an interesting character on his own here as we’re shown two different sides to him. In the flashbacks we see the ruthless dictator who screams that he cannot be killed in the aftermath of a bombing and has no qualms about executing everyone connected to his enemies. After decades of conflict, the present day Khaled is a changed man. He seems much more open to peaceful terms of resolution and clearly feels Barry’s influence could be needed. We’ll never know the full extent of this change however as in one of Tyrant’s first game changing twists, Khaled has a stroke and subsequently dies, leaving Jamal in charge. With Barry planning to leave the country ASAP, you can be forgiven for thinking that Jamal would use his new position of power to keep Barry around but in a quick-fire second twist, Jamal winds up getting into a serious car accident leaving him incapacitated for an unknown amount of time. This chain of events leads to Barry becoming the unwilling de facto leader of Abbudin, giving him an actual compelling reason to stay.
Barry isn’t the most fascinating lead character I’ve ever seen but there’s plenty of room for growth, while Jamal stands out due to his horrible acts which could become a bit over the top if he makes a full recovery and returns to his bad habits. Not too many of the supporting characters really jumped out at me here. Barry’s children were used in completely differing ways here as Emma had absolutely nothing of importance to do while Sammy has the makings of an interesting side-plot considering he is gay and now living in a country that may have some radical opinions on the topic. Justin Kirk (Weeds) popped up as John Tucker, a diplomat working in the American embassy but it remains to be seen what role he’ll have to play going forward.
Tyrant saved its best twist for last as we get to see the ending of the flashback events depicted throughout the episode. Watching as Jamal failed to execute one of his father’s prisoners was powerful on its own, but seeing Barry pick up the gun and coldly finish the job flipped my whole perception of the series. It may have been easy to assume that Barry fled Abbudin due to the heinous acts he witnessed there, but perhaps he fled because he was the perpetrator of some of those acts. Giving a darker side to Barry could be the perfect way to make this character a lead we can invest in. Throw a few more twists in and move away from the forced storytelling and hopefully Tyrant will grow into the show its potential points to.
Did ‘Tyrant’ do enough to grab you with its pilot? Did you have any issues with the show? Voice your opinions in the comments below?
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