Sometimes, it can feel like everyone on TV has daddy issues. From Raylan Givens to Jack Shephard to Nate Fisher, we've all experienced stories about men who are significantly shaped by the shadows cast by their fathers. FX's new drama Tyrant is yet another in a long line of these stories and it's the kind of show where our leading man Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) is both figuratively and literally trying to run away from his past and his father's influential shadow. However, what made this first episode so compelling and what gives me real hope for Tyrant as a series is that this also the kind of show where we very quickly see what returning home and to his father does to Barry. The shadow is inescapable.
Having spent his childhood watching his dictator father Khaled (Nasser Faris) run roughshod over Abbudin (our fictional Middle Eastern setting), Barry moved to the United States, become a pediatrician, married a white woman (Jennifer Finnigan), and tried to forget about all the things his father (and he) did back home. A trip back to the homeland for his nephew's wedding immediately pulls Barry back into the tumultuous and dangerous life--including his parents and brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom)--that he tried so hard to ditch. That's not particularly original on its own, though the contemporary political and cultural climate in the Middle East certainly injects some life into the proceedings. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this first episode so much because though it presents us with that relatively recognizable premise, it built to a couple of great moments at the end of the episode that make the whole first hour-plus worthwhile.
Throughout the episode, Barry was reserved, almost to a fault. Other characters spoke, while he mostly listened, or pretended to as he was thinking about something else, usually some terrible childhood moments we saw in flashbacks. That type of character can work really well on the page, but it needs a sturdy presence on-screen. At first, I wasn't entirely sold on Rayner in the part (setting aside the fact that he's just a tanned British guy); he seemed so awkward around even his wife and children. But as the episode's events unfolded, from Barry's first meeting with his family at the palace and Jamal's violent outburst during the bachelor party to the brief but not tearful goodbye with his father where the dictator told his second son "It should have been you," the pressure kept building on this man who has decided that the only way to keep all this darkness away is to never talk about it and literally run as far away from it as he can. And then in one moment, in the hospital with his wife and kids, all the frustration, anger, whatever came out in a split second when Barry struck his (admittedly bratty) teenage son for disobeying him yet again. It was in that moment that you realize that Barry hasn't just been running from his father; he's been running from himself because he knows what this particular place, with all its history, and these people, bring out of him.
Good pilots build to moments like that. It was a very brief, fleeting bout of emotion from a character that didn't present much of it throughout the rest of the episode, even after this particular scene. It was also a moment that in some ways recontextualized other parts of the episode, like the earlier scene where Barry told his wife Molly that he doesn't blame his brother Jamal for his crappy behavior; he blames his father's influence on Jamal. Clearly, that's a loaded statement. A similar thing could be said for the early-episode line where Barry pleaded with Molly that they had to come back home after their visit.
Nevertheless, it was in that moment where Tyrant (and Rayner's performance) really started to work for me. In some ways it felt like the pilot wanted us to feel even more shock about the "reveal" in the episode-long flashback sequence with young Barry and Jamal witnessing their father execute infidels. Obviously, the BIG SHOCKER was that even though Khaled pushed the older Jamal to be the future leader by pulling the trigger, it was little Barry who actually had the gumption to do it. That was a revelatory moment for the character and for the show, purposefully placed in the episode to come after the slap and the "It should have been you" line, but it was also pretty clearly telegraphed by the editing and flow of the episode. I preferred the hospital scene, for all the reasons listed above and for simply how the loud sound of the smack rang through the quiet, distilled hospital waiting room. Just really solid stuff from everyone, including director David Yates.
I don't want to dwell on those moments too much more, because despite the some of the familiarity that Tyrant's pilot offered, there was much to like here, with some caveats. Positioning Barry as a quiet introvert for the majority of the episode gave writer Gideon Raff and director Yates a lot of time to build out some of the supporting players, of which there are many. Barhom's Jamal got most of the juicy material, including quite the introduction where Barry says "my brother" and then boom, smashcut to Jamal sexually assaulting a married woman while her husband and children wait in the hallway, very aware of what's going on. And GOOD LORD let's try not to focus too much on the later, uh, sexual encounter Jamal had near the end of the episode. I'm flinching just thinking about it. The rape-y stuff here was especially gross, and not that well-executed. We get it, Jamal is a bad guy! Finnigan didn't have a whole lot to do as the wife, but she also wasn't anything close to a lame nag either. The pilot was clearly setting up some of the history between Barry and Jamal's battered wife Leila (Moran Atias), so I'm sure that'll give both of the primary female actors/characters something to do very soon.
I'm guessing that considering that this show comes from the guys behind Homeland, there might have been an expectation for more of a political thriller. There was some of that here, particularly in the scene between Barry and his freedom fighting journalist buddy Fauzi (Fares Fares) and Jamal's issues with some of the rebel terrorist groups in the area. Everyone's mileage will vary of course, but those bits didn't strike me in the same way as some of the interpersonal and familial conflicts did. I don't necessarily need another show overtly about terrorist plots, spies, etc. I'm sure that will come into play on Tyrant, but this opening episode was focused on these messed up people, however familiar some of the focus happened to be. That's the show, and it's one that I'm excited to see unfold over the next nine weeks.
– It will be interesting to see how the show handles the politics of this part of the world, especially given that this is an American cable network production, top-lined by two white people, etc. The pilot wasn't especially heavy-handed in this regard; there were some discussions about the good and bad that Khaled had done in his time as a dictator, but the flashbacks certainly painted a much more negative picture.
– The report on the behind-the-scenes issues in production weren't kind to Yates' direction, but this opening episode looked pretty good to me. While the Israel location shooting certainly helps, Yates and his team did a great job of catching those long and wide-angle shots that emphasized the scale of the Al-Fayeed palace and the various terrains on display here. The overhead shot in the hospital waiting room was weird, but very cool. Nice use (or creation) of that location.
– Justin Kirk's diplomat character appeared to be the kind of sleezeball you might expect Justin Kirk to play, and I guess that's something.
– Barry and Molly's children, Emma (Anne Winters) and Sammy (Noah Silver), were not terrible, but still moderately annoying, right? Sammy had more to do, given the whole smacking thing and his search for male companionship.
What'd you folks think of this opener? Are you in for the long haul?