While obsessive coverage of television can sometimes turn the proverbial mountain into a molehill when a show faces even a small amount of behind-the-scenes disruption, the first season of FX's Tyrant proved that eventually, a show can't recover from every weird or troublesome event that befalls it. From Ang Lee and Gideon Raff leaving the project before it really got off the ground to the supremely odd decision to cast a white British dude as the lead to the late-season shift in shooting from Israel to Turkey because of real-life political unrest, Tyrant's first year on the job probably couldn't've gone any worse. In fact, when the main theme of your pre-air buzz in the trades focuses solely on the turmoil, it might be time to simply take a knee. Ultimately, though, the series' most significant obstacle was that everything happening backstage was more interesting than the fictional story and characters driving the action on screen—as the Season 1 finale, "Gone Fishing," illustrated.
As I alluded to the last time I checked in on the show much earlier in the summer, Tyrant's biggest problem was that it didn't really have any energy or momentum. The premise—self-exiled son of a tyrannical dictator returns home to the Middle East and naively tries to clean up multiple generations' worth of messes—suggests one heck of a juicy story, but throughout its first season, Tyrant struggled with the question of what it wanted to be. At first, it seemed like more of a glossy, semi-ridiculous soap opera told through the prism of a very #current geopolitical climate. Then, midway through, the show more clearly committed itself to political theater, focusing on Barry's attempts to first lasso and later flat-out replace his unstable brother Jamal. Running away from the heightened drama that was hinted at early on meant that Tyrant mostly just plodded along as Barry talked himself—and, hilariously, other people—into believing that he, the pediatrician, could just decide to become the leader of an entire country. For a series with such a silly premise as that, Tyrant never got especially turnt up, and that's unfortunate.
Much of Tyrant's odd (dare I say basic) execution started and stopped with the Al-Fayed brothers. Adam Rayner and especially Ashraf Barhom were always ready to go, but the show's writers—featuring a real murderer's row in Howard Gordon, Craig Wright, and Glenn Gordon Caron—never fully settled on how the audience was supposed to view Barry and Jamal. Of course Barry was an overly earnest and naive dolt who absolutely believed he could turn his home country around, despite having absolutely no experience; but were we supposed to see that as admirable or really, really stupid? Of course Jamal acted terribly on a regular basis, raping and murdering mulitiple women and yet still desperately clinging to the idea that he could escape a job or life he never wanted; but again, did that make him a sympathetic scumbag or just a scumbag?
In this seemingly never-ending era of difficult men, you could argue that having these conflicted feelings regarding the Al-Fayed brothers was fundamental to the Tyrant experience, that they're multi-dimensional characters that don't just fall into clearly delineated categories. But where that argument goes astray is in the assumption that often backs it: that these collections of contradictions are what make "cool" or "complicated" TV characters. I don't need to like or be able to relate to the people on screen, but it's nice when their contradictions add up to something significant, or at least when a show uses them as a way to make a thematic point. On Tyrant, that didn't really happen.
After weeks of Barry plotting in secret (barely) with diplomat John Tucker (Justin Kirk) and government official Lea Exley (Leslie Hope) to dismantle Jamal's inner circle and ultimately remove him from power by staging a coup, the show did the right thing by finally acknowledging that the probable success of this plan was very low. Barry's scheme blew up in his face, his terrible uncle Tariq was freed from prison, and Jamal was forced to put his now-traitorous brother behind bars, with the death penalty on the table. Clearly, that was the smart call for the story; any possibility of Barry actually becoming the new leader of Abbudin was outrageous. But once again, I'm still not entirely sure whether Tyrant wanted us to see it as outrageous. Barry's wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) constantly told him that his ideas were ridiculous, but then kowtowed to him so many times that her dissent lost all effect. Same goes for the show's late-season attempts to layer the story with references to the United States' recent involvement in regime changes; while they signaled that Tyrant knew that Barry was kind of an idiot, the show had made that point in the first four episodes too, when the character was only talking down kidnappers during hostage situations and not conspiring against and planning to overthrow his brother.
Similar frustrations abounded with Jamal, in both the finale and the season as a whole. The first few post-pilot episodes backtracked on his horrid mistreatment of women, trumpeting a changed-man narrative that nobody bought—but then by the middle of the season, he was trying to murder possible political opposition and suffocating his mistresses. The petulant-child routine turned pretty sour by the end of Tyrant's 10 episodes because it was the only note the show had for the character. There's something to be made out of a character who just wants to run away but can't get anyone to join him so he keeps acting out, but Jamal's reaction to Barry's "betrayal" didn't land the way the show wanted it to because there was no real reason to feel sympathy for either of them. Cliffhangers exist to trump up drama in excessive ways, but even with that in mind, the idea that Jamal would even consider killing Barry holds no water because the show couldn't make up its mind with regard to who these two men are (and to a lesser extent, what they mean to one another).
And if the story with the Al-Fayed brothers wasn't going to land, Tyrant certainly had no other characters to make the save. Whether that was due to production troubles or mediocre execution, every other character on this show was either under-developed, utterly useless, or simply dropped altogether. I mentioned Molly's wet-blanket status, but somehow Leila (Moran Atias) managed to be just as sidelined, despite her history with Barry and her troubled relationship with Jamal. The scene in the finale where Leila verbally assaulted Barry was even more lifeless than Jamal's speech to him, because it felt like two episodes' worth of story between those characters had been jettisoned somewhere along the way so that the show could squeeze in some half-baked political commentary. And she was the third or fourth best character on the show.
Everyone else fared even worse. The kids disappeared for a string of episodes in the middle of the season, only to return near the end with literally nothing to do but complain about... stuff. Barry and Jamal's mom reappeared in the finale to make the worst plea ever that Jamal spare Barry's life. Molly's sister randomly showed up in the back half of the season as well, she couldn't've been more ineffectual. And somehow, there was a C-story in "Gone Fishing" about the daughter Emma and the sister getting robbed and then trying to explain to the café owner that they were related to the president. Like three scenes! Kirk's John Tucker certainly had more to do as Barry made his moves, but it's not as if he was an actual character; he just delivered exposition. The son's gay lover fell off the face of the earth, Fares Fares' journalist dude existed only as a straw man for Barry's pig-headed leadership workshop, and I guess much of the non-Barry political opposition figured they'd take a step back and regroup for a little bit, or something. Tyrant was populated with more than a dozen regular or semi-regular characters, and it occasionally hinted at a bigger world outside the Al-Fayed mansion, but it simply never, ever realized that world in Season 1.
In the end, Tyrant's first season was all about unrealized potential. We can place a lot of the blame for that on all the drama behind the scenes, but not all of it. And we can't point fingers at the show's excessive ambition, either; after the first couple of episodes, it hit the same notes, over and over and over again. FX and Fox 21 have put a lot of money into this show, particularly in building locations in Israel. But at this point, is it really worth it to bring Tyrant back for another season? I'm not at all convinced that it is.
– The move to Turkey definitely altered the show's ability to make the most of its location shooting. Turkey's nice and all, but it's not Israel, and it seemed fairly clear to me over the last couple of episodes that the show was simply racing to get things done and thus relying much more on interior sets. I will miss some of those early locations if the show is canceled.
– I enjoyed that early scene in the finale where Tucker and Exley explained to Barry that his plan to remove all the douche generals and yes-men worked so well that they didn't even need to get rid of Jamal after all. He's so good at politics!
– The exasperated café owner might be my favorite character on the show. His reactions to Emma and Aunt Jenna's explanation of what happened with the robbery were surprisingly good. Make that dude a regular.
Did you stick it out with Tyrant? If so, what'd you think of the finale? And do you want a second season?
AIRED ON 9/7/2016
Season 3 : Episode 10