By Melissa Maerz
August 01, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Patrick Harbron/FX
  • TV Show

Will Americans watch a political drama with an Arab hero? Tyrant should’ve made that question irrelevant, since it arrived at FX with the makings of a great epic. Created by Gideon Raff, an Emmy-winning producer of Homeland, the show borrows from The Godfather: It’s the story of a brutal patriarch’s younger son, who gets pulled back into the family business. Raised in the fictional war-torn country of Abbudin by the vicious dictator Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris), Bassam (Adam Rayner) has spent 20 years in self-imposed exile as ”Barry,” living with his American wife (Jennifer Finnigan) and teenage children (Anne Winters and Noah Silver) in Pasadena. But when he finally returns to his homeland for a wedding, he and his family get trapped there — possibly for good.

It’s an intriguing premise, but the project has been troubled from the start: Ang Lee (Life of Pi) was attached to direct but bowed out early in the process; Raff parted ways with Tyrant after the pilot. Developers Howard Gordon (Homeland) and Craig Wright (Six Feet Under) have had to answer to an Islamic group’s protests over ”potential Islamophobic stereotyping.” Critics have also raised concerns about the casting of Rayner (he’s white) and the fact that a series about the Arab world is being shot in Israel. Add in Gordon’s résumé — he was a showrunner on 24, which was criticized for its portrayal of Muslims — and Tyrant was fending off controversy before we even got to see the first episode.

Gordon has said that he’s trying to dramatize the ”complexity” of the Middle East, but there’s not a lot of depth to the pilot. Khaled is your classic Big Bad, a guy who trains his children to kill and leaves his son to burn in a terrorist attack. Bassam’s older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), is the arrogant monster you’d expect, slicing one of his detractors with a razor, raping whomever he pleases, and blasting terrible classic-rock anthems from his flashy sports car. (At least he’s funny. When Bassam suggests that he talk things out instead of resorting to violence, Jamal huffs, ”You mean like Oprah? Oh, you had a bad childhood? Me too! Let’s hug it out.”) Besides Bassam, there’s only one Arab character worth rooting for, and he’s practically a martyr: Fauzi (Fares Fares) is a freedom-fighting reporter who’s been tortured for writing the truth.

The problem isn’t that Khaled, Jamal, and their inner circle give Arabs a bad name. This is a show about a dictator and his family, after all — they’re not supposed to be saints. The problem is that so far they’re stock characters. Maybe that’s an unfortunate side effect of setting the show in Abbudin, a distant desert land that seems to borrow its real-life events from Egypt, Syria, and Libya. When you give your country a fake Middle Eastern name, you risk turning it into a stand-in for all Middle Eastern countries.

To be fair, the Americans are pretty unbearable too. And that might be the whole point: When Bassam’s daughter complains that getting her hand painted is ”patriarchal,” or the son brags that he’d get treated like royalty if there were a terrorist attack, they’re such ugly Americans, you kind of want to force them to stay in Abbudin forever. (What is up with Homeland staffers and annoying teenagers? Dana Brody obviously taught these kids the art of the brow furrow.) Still, it’s a shame that even the wife comes off as unsympathetic, especially when she threatens to divorce Bassam because he won’t tell her what he’s thinking. After 19 years of marriage to a man whose father massacred innocents, she’s just now realizing that he has secrets?

If there’s one thing that saves Tyrant, it’s Bassam. By the end of the pilot, he’s not the boring, all-moral hero that he seems. Rayner brings a certain quiet intensity to the role, one that suggests Bassam isn’t just worried about his father’s behavior — he doesn’t quite know what he’s capable of himself. At this point, we don’t quite know either. Raff once said that the idea for Tyrant was inspired by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who was hailed as the Western-educated savior of the people before eventually being denounced as a killer. And the pilot’s final scene hints that we might get to see Bassam devolve in a similar way, which would be compelling to watch. With so much attention focused on this American series set in the Middle East, Tyrant is already an important show. Now it just has to prove that it’s also a good one. B-

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