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TV review: Middle East drama ‘Tyrant’ is troubled but promising

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Like father, like son Adam Rayner (left) prepares to take on the family business in FX’s Tyrant.

Three stars

Tyrant Tuesdays, 10 p.m., FX.

Before even premiering, FX’s Tyrant suffered from behind-the-scenes upheaval, and it’s not hard to see why producers had a tough time coming up with a cohesive vision for the show. Executive producer Howard Gordon was previously in charge of 24 and Homeland, and Tyrant features the kind of political intrigue that will be familiar to fans of those shows. But it’s not a spy series, and it doesn’t rely on action sequences to build excitement and suspense. Instead it’s more of a family drama, and combining the incendiary aspects of Gordon’s past work with a grounded relationship story is a tough balancing act, one that the pilot episode can’t quite pull off.

It takes most of that first episode just to get to the central concept, which is that Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), son of the dictator of fictional Middle East nation Abbudin, has returned to his home country after two decades spent living in the U.S., and is reluctantly drawn into playing an active role in the government. There’s plenty of political maneuvering (and a bit of violence) leading up to Barry’s enlistment as the country’s new head of state, but there’s just as much focus on the complicated relationships within the Al Fayeed family, including Barry’s (white) American wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), and his American-born teenage kids, Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Anne Winters). The most charismatic character in the episode is Barry’s cruel, volatile brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), whose nastiness has a definite campy side to it.

Although the producers are clearly trying to offer a realistic take on Middle East politics, Tyrant isn’t exactly believable, and not only because all of the Abbudinese characters conveniently speak English, even to each other. The family dynamics make the show feel like a cross between Homeland and Dallas, and the soapier elements are often the most entertaining. The producers may not know exactly what kind of show they’re making yet, but there’s enough potential in the pilot that it’ll be worth sticking around for at least a few more episodes to see how things play out.

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