Review: Tyrant 1×1-1×2 (FX)

Reality's as strange as fiction

In the US: Tuesdays, 10pm, FX

Sometimes, before criticising fiction, it’s worth looking at reality and noting just how much weirder it can be. 

Take Bashar al-Assad. He’s the ruler of a little country called Syria that you might have heard of recently. He’s very much A Bad Man, having amongst other things deployed chemical weapons against his own population in a very bloody civil war that’s claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.

Guess what? He never wanted to be ruler of Syria. He wanted to be a doctor. In fact, he went to Western Eye Hospital, part of the St Mary’s group of teaching hospitals in London, so that he could become an opthamologist. 

In fact, it was his brother Bassel who was being groomed for power by their father, Hafez al-Assad. However, Bassel was killed in a car accident, which meant that Bashar was recalled back to Syria and his father decided to prepare him to become president instead.

Reality is strange: had that car accident not happened, one of the bloodiest dictators of modern history would be off treating eye disorders somewhere.

Thus, going into FX’s new show Tyrant, it’s worth remembering that despite all the seemingly preposterous conceits of the show, reality is almost certainly serving up something stranger somewhere in the world. Set in a thinly veiled version of Syria that’s separated by a mere star on its flag from the real thing, it sees an Arab-American paediatrician return back to his home country for his nephew’s wedding. While there, his father has a stroke and his brother has a car accident, which would be merely tragic were it not for the fact that his father is the ruler of the country and he in turn is now its new de facto ruler – at least until his brother gets better. Will he prove to be a better, kinder ruler, or will power turn him into the thing that he’s tried to so hard to avoid?

Written by Gideon Raff, the Israeli writer/director who created the original HomelandPrisoners of War/Hatufilm, the show is a hard but rewarding watch, albeit one that knows it. But it’s not without its problems. 

Here’s a trailer. 

A drama that follows a typical American family whose members find themselves embroiled in the geopolitical intrigue of a volatile Middle Eastern country.

Is it any good?
It’s pretty good but it’s the kind of show so fixated on exploring evil, its seductiveness and how people become evil – particularly if they happen to live in the Middle East – that it almost forgets that it needs to make the show something you want to watch rather than a mere polemic without characters that will engross you.

The action naturally revolves around paediatrician-cum-tyrant Barry Al Fayeed (the not-Middle-Eastern-at-all Adam Rayner* from Norwich) and his family. Bizarrely, none of his family – not his kids, not his wife – can understand why he’s none to happy to be related to a mass-murdering dictator or want to return to the country of his birth. Because, y’know, he can get a jumbo jet and a palace all to himself if he wants and isn’t that like totes great?

Don’t they read newspapers? I mean if you knew your husband was related to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, would you really be arguing that “Maybe he’s not all that bad. Let’s go have a chat with him. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Rayner, who’s great but seems to believe that acting like he’s had 20 years of PTSD is a good thing in a leading man, does all he can to avoid being evil but pretty much as soon as he’s in not-Syria, he’s slapping his son around and involved in naked finger-amputations with his sociopathic brother (Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom). Indeed, through scenes like this, the writers spend a lot of time doing all they can to show us how evil Barhom is. Apart from naked fights, he’s off punching and abusing his wife, raping poor women while their husbands have to wait outside and listen, and driving his ferrari into villages worth less than one of its wheels. He’s not just evil. He’s not even just Evil. He’s Arab Evil. 

Other than that, everyone’s there to highlight just how bad not-Syria is, with women largely there to be a recipient of violence rather than having opinions or agency of their own. His son (the half-French, half-American, not-Arab Noah Silver) is gay, and I suspect that that’s not going to go down well later on because the Middle East is like totally different to the US, where LGBTI people are really treated well, as we all know. Rayner’s American wife (Jennifer Finnigan) is there to foil Rayner’s escape plans and lap up living in the lap of luxury. I have no idea why his daughter (Anne Winters – all-American, not-Arab) is there, other than to be moody.

To be fair, American diplomat Justin Kirk (Animal Practice) is surprisingly there to be the pro-repression argument, citing how much better per-capita income is compared to other countries in the region, but largely, 9mm rounds to the head speak louder than statistics in Tyrant. And Raff, who obviously has a lot more knowledge of life in the Middle East than the average US TV writer, manages to strike a reasonable balance between depicting most of not-Syria’s inhabitants as being “just like you and me” and the horrors that the show sets out to explore.

Nevertheless, the show, despite the strangeness of reality and the obvious souces for its analogy, still doesn’t feel especially plausible. Aside from the fact that none of the leads are Arabs, giving the show a somewhat colonial feel, and the fact the music comes straight from the Prince of Persia school of Middle Eastern sounds doesn’t exactly ground it in reality, either. The points it makes – women, gays, etc aren’t well treated in most Middle Eastern countries, that ruling can be difficult and that evil can be bland – aren’t exactly the most profound or insightful. And while there are certainly pampered dicks who do terrible things out in the Middle East (Barhom’s character is clearly modelled on certain Saudia Arabian princes) that isn’t news either and Barhom’s pretty much a cartoon at this stage.

However, there’s clearly a lot of potential here and if the show can find a few more shades of grey, learn that women aren’t just there for characterisation of men and give Rayner a much-needed daily adrenaline shot, it could actually become a must-see. If not, it’ll do quite nicely as a dramatised biography of Bashar al-Assad that you might actually want to watch.

*Oh yes. Most bizarre aspect of Tyrant? Adam Rayner was once killed by a giant alien wasp – sometimes fiction can be stranger than reality after all.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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