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by Alison Willmore
January 16, 2014 3:20 PM
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Why FX's Middle Eastern Drama 'Tyrant' Promises to Be One of the Year's Most Hot-Button Series

Adam Rayner, Alice Krige as Amira and Nasser Faris in 'Tyrant' Patrick Harbron/FX

"Tyrant" is one of three new dramas FX is launching this year, the others being Coen brothers adaptation "Fargo" and Guillermo del Toro's vampire reimagining "The Strain." Of the trio, "Tyrant" is the only one not based on a pre-existing property -- it's the original creation of Gideon Raff, the man behind the Israeli series "Prisoners of War," on which "Homeland" was based. Raff is working with fellow executive producers Howard Gordon (of "Homeland" and "24") and showrunner Craig Wright ("Dirty Sexy Money") on the story of Bassam Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the second son of the dictator of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Baladi, who's been in self-selected exile, married to the American Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), with whom he has two teenage kids.

Bassam, who now goes by "Barry," has been living a fully assimilated life as a pediatrician in L.A. when he and the family head back to his homeland for his nephew's wedding in what is his first visit in 20 years. The concept explores some bold and possibly sensitive territory, which Raff, Gordon and cast members Rayner, Finnigan, Ashraf Barhom (who plays Barry's older brother Jamal), Moran Atias (who plays Jamal's wife Leila) and Justin Kirk (who plays the U.S. diplomat to Baladi, John Tucker) discussed when they appeared at the TCA winter press tour. The pilot, which was directed by David Yates (of the "Harry Potter" franchise), was shown to the press, and the rest of the 10-episode first season will begin shooting in Tel Aviv in March. The pilot is certainly smart and bracingly daring -- and in a medium that hasn't had a great history of representations of Arab characters or cultures, it contains both great promise and the potential for serious missteps.

Raff said that as someone from the Middle East, he's always been fascinated by the region. "I was watching TV one day in my apartment in Tel Aviv and on the news there was a thing about Bashar al Assad, the President of Syria, killing a few dozen people in a city called Daraa. And everybody was saying how horrible he is, a mass killer, he has to go and we have to replace him. And I was thinking that just a few years earlier, everybody was so happy that he, educated in the West, married to a British woman, is coming to replace his father. And I thought he probably misses his life in London now very much. How you go from being that to being hailed a mass killer, that journey was really interesting to me."

Gordon noted that the show was also inspired by the Arab Spring, and added that the TV landscape and the world has changed since "24," which he executive produced, premiered two months after 9/11 in 2001. "If you look at the New York Times, or any paper for that matter, 50 percent of the ink is about what’s happening in Egypt, what’s happened in Libya, what’s happening in Syria. That part of the world is experiencing a seismic shift. And to have the opportunity to tell a story about people and put faces on the things that are merely headlines felt just too good to ignore."

"We're part of a world that is not an ocean and several continents away but very much here," Gordon continued. "'24' was an iteration of that story; 'Homeland,' another facet, but all facets of the same story, which I think is the story of our time." "24" received criticism for some of its depictions of Muslims, and Gordon said with "Tyrant" what they are trying to show is "just complexity." He continued that one thing "24," "Homeland" and "Tyrant" have in common is "that there aren’t good answers. There’s just the least bad of two bad choices, and I think that’s where some of the great drama here is going to reside."

The fictional country of Baladi is deliberately made up of mixed elements from a few different real countries so that it doesn't come across as a stand-in for a particular nation or situation. The producers also said they are going to steer clear of naming particular sects or clans while pulling from real details, with Gordon saying "we do want to stay away from reality and yet hew to it as long as sort of it feels emotionally correct and culturally correct. I think we’re going to try to stay away from names as much as possible." The character of John Tucker is also intended to be a way to deal with complicated themes -- "one of the things we want to do is not be reductive but also honor the complexities of and the folly of American policy," Gordon said, "and the law of unintended consequences makes for very good drama." With Tucker, he explained, "we’re going to be equal opportunity offenders."

You'd think that the setting alone would have enough potential controversy to fuel a whole series, but there's also the matter of white lead actor Adam Rayner, who's English, playing a character who is half Arab. (Ashraf Barhom, who plays sibling Jamal, is an Israeli Arab.) "I think we can all agree that if you are having to radically, physically transform someone to play a different race or ethnicity, that doesn’t fly anymore," said Rayner. "But we’re not changing my appearance in any way. My mother in the show is English if you want some kind of explanation for what I look like." "I think it’s more genetic than ethnic," added Gordon. The pilot also suggests, and Gordon confirmed, that Barry's teenage son Sammy (Noah Silver) is gay and gets involved in a flirtation that will lead the series to explore how a young gay male would come of age in the environment of the Al Fayeed palace.

For his work on his earlier series, Gordon noted, "I’ve been called an Islamaphobe and a torture mongerer. So what else can they call me?" adding that "people will see what they want to see in it." For him, "this is really a family drama against this very tough political situation." For Barry, he posited, it's also a question of accepting "his destiny that he can perhaps naively navigate this parallel situation," with the central question of the series being "What does it mean to be a good man?"

Check out all our coverage of the Winter 2014 TCA press tour.

23 Comments

  • VintageFan | July 9, 2014 8:01 AMReply

    I think the plot of the entire series seems to be quite predictable. Good Man turns bad because , he is his fathers son, and no matter how bad he sees his family, blood is blood. The objective of the show may be to lead the viewers into believing this is going to be an Arab version of the Godfather's Michael Corleone, wherein the good son, becomes an even worse man than his father. However, that would be a terrible show! What may be better, would be to develop the character Barry , eventually seizing power and becoming like the current Abdulla II of Jordan. The entire show could finally put together a positive character, of an Arab leader that can actually transform the evil kingdom, in several seasons ( and episodes) to come into a modern democracy. The conflicts of course will be trying to overcome his enemies, and stay in power. The writers can keep the story going using current events in the region, because it seems to be the story of a lot of Arab nations in turmoil at the moment. Barry will have plenty to fight with, to stay in control, and continuously battling several of his enemies, including his own relatives who want him out of the picture. And of course, Barry will have his nemesis , the fundamentalists fighting him every step of the way. This would definitely be a challenge, to show how traditions clash between those Arabs who have grown up in the West, and those in his family that want to continue the old ways.

  • Birdie | July 4, 2014 10:52 PMReply

    Veritas: me thinks you have mistaken me for someone who has less intelligence than you think you have I am not a prude and at my age i have seen many movies and tv series which have sex and violence -- but the really good ones have this woven into the story and the really bad ones use it to bolster a weak story. I am fully aware -- altho you dont thonk so -- of the huge differences between thte puritan ways we Americans are accused of and the "more open attitudes" of Europe and other countries. This first episode used both the sex and violence aspects in one fell swoop -- possibly to catch the attention of viewers like yourself -- otherwise there would not have been as great a n impact. It would have had my respect if these two aspects had been subtley introduced in later episodes. The first episode would have been much better building the characters and their mindset. I am more interested in the mindset of thesee people and how they interrelate with each oher and the world as opposoed to the base instinct which garners no intelligence. As for the gay son, you can see the handwriting on the wall -- the writers are treating this character as a loose minded individual with no thought to the dangers he could cause not only to himself but his family. The sister however, gets it. As i said, this first episode had no character building and no chemistry and it was predictable. If it had, i would have continued to watch it. M

  • Avagadro602 | July 2, 2014 9:40 AMReply

    A challenging and raw series so far. Refreshingly not politically correct. I find myself able to Identify with the Pediatrician. His choice of profession is interesting in itself. Not a surgeon, used to dealing more closely with blood, life and death.
    With the hero(so far) having a gay son, this series promises to be a challenging one for Islamic fundamentalism, and our conceptions thereof. Decidedly not PC it would appear. The sex in this setting has so far reflected the prevailing respect for women we have heard reported from the Middle East.
    Expect to hear howls and criticism from the PC crowd.
    Wish they would amp up the volume of the "whispery" scenes for us hearing challenged.

  • Jacko | June 28, 2014 6:09 PMReply

    The show has great potential. It is obvious premised on "The Godfather" which, interestingly, was Saddam Hussein's favorite movie. My only criticism is that Molly appears to be oblivious as to the homicidal nature of the her husband's family and the urgent need he has to return to the US as soon as possible, in order to escape its entanglements. She cannot be that ignorant and dismissive and not be able to intuit, at a minimum, her husbands anxiety. This simply does not ring true.

  • Birdie | June 27, 2014 11:23 PMReply

    This show is terrible with worse than gratutious sex. What was the point of throwing off the towel and beating someone senseless while nude? And the scene with the daughter in law bride in the bathroom? That was disgusting. The dialogue is stilted and slow and there is no chemestry between the characters. Saw the first episode - wont watch anymore

  • Cameo | July 2, 2014 12:08 AM

    Thanks for the heads up, Birdie. I was thinking of watching this show, but if it has all the additional unnecesary sex scenes, I will opt out. It's not difficult to make a decent drama without that (24 is an example, as are many others). Leave it for the people who have to have that kind of thing. There are millions of us who really don't.

    Hope you can overlook the mean, hostile response you got about it. I'd say that person has some issues that haven't been dealt with.

    I'm sure there are others who also appreciated the heads up and will steer clear. Thank you!

  • Veritas | July 1, 2014 4:45 PM

    Your simple mindedness is showing... I watched the pilot too and everything made sense to me.
    Throwing off the towel-It was in the way, have you ever tried walking around with ease in a small short towel?? The scene was shot in a bath house that alone takes away any need to explain nudity.. In that scene you also see a complete disregard of what those around him think, something we can relate to absolute power which he is accustomed to not to mention Arabs aren't as squeamish about nudity between men as the western world is, something you should have picked up on from the bath house setting. Lastly hollywood is no longer sacrificing authenticity to meet your oh so high moral standards.
    Daughter in law scene - he sees her being very friendly with a guy during the party, the thought of her being impure crosses his mind, being the person that he is, he checks.. This is the state of mind in some regions... have you never heard of 13 yr old girls being married off, virginity checks???
    You sound like one of those people who watches TV with their face in their phones, stick to those shows that don't really require you to pay attention like American dad or something.
    Your opinions however are clear indicators that this show was actually made for people who think like you, to expose you to how things happen in places outside of America

  • Allie | June 30, 2014 11:05 AM

    The naked beat down seemed like a nod to Eastern Promises.
    The rape scene was to demonstrate the tyrannical character of the
    Brother.

  • tori | June 26, 2014 12:10 PMReply

    Show is interesting, but the wife is awful!

  • Paul K | July 23, 2014 1:55 PM

    Which one?

  • Hgarza | June 26, 2014 12:02 AMReply

    I just watched the show and I think it's awesome. While I agree that the weakest character is the blonde, I still think it's a fantastic show!

  • Carlos | June 25, 2014 6:38 PMReply

    The "Tyrant" is like the "Godfather" but done with a Middle Eastern culture. Really intense and sprinkled with unexpected twists. The blonde wife is the weakest character in the show. After reading the article I am now able to pick up on the names of the characters and their relationships. If this show is too intense for you try watching Modern Family. :-)

  • Lisa | June 25, 2014 5:11 PMReply

    I'm so happy that you are finally tapping into this rich culture, but hope you show some good apples instead of all bad ones. It's been a mystery of how any leader in this part of the world can actually succeed without so much trauma, and yet I have to believe that despite all the horror surrounding these leaders, that 'good' will ultimately win over 'evil.' Rayner looks like a typical Lebanese man, no controversy whatsoever with his coloring. Wish you all the best and great cast!

  • jum | June 25, 2014 12:43 PMReply

    terrible show

  • jum | June 25, 2014 12:42 PMReply

    what a horrible show

  • ti | June 24, 2014 10:36 PMReply

    Looks like great show..but give me a break..All America offer is blond hair blue eye skinny chic? No... lets be real... there are plenty of American woman who look better...so typical of TV.

  • Everett | June 21, 2014 10:57 AMReply

    Another Islamophobic show on TV. Sad.

  • Ra's al Ghul | June 9, 2014 12:35 AMReply

    Wow FX is really starting to trip up. I thought after SOA that something interesting might spawn from their creators. Now you got a show with a gay son thats being filmed in Tel Aviv, wow way to show the Arab's point of view. Anyway those are 2 good reasons that I will not watch this show. The Strain might be good but vampire stories are hackneyed so thats a toss up. Personally, after watching Breaking Bad (friend recommended even though I resisted that it won't be interesting) which got me hooked like no other show, I started going to AMC a to see what they had and know I'm watching TURN as well. AMC is putting up better shows despite lower spending budgets so FX better get its act together.

  • Stan | June 28, 2014 6:12 PM

    You will find out the "Arab point of view" regarding homosexuality in some later episode. And it is not encouraging.

  • Dave Creek | May 8, 2014 12:13 AMReply

    Sorry about the previous comment. A power glitch sent me to the wrong page without me knowing it. That comment doesn't apply to this story at all. If anyone can delete it, please do so.

  • Dave Creek | May 8, 2014 12:11 AMReply

    I'm really tired of this effect when it's used in non-fiction TV, such as some "reality" shows and even documentaries. It looks inherently silly to me, and spoils any serious intent on the part of the filmmakers. It's also an easy way to do a transition rather than having to shoot and edit using cutaways, dissolves, etc.

  • dreamlife613 | January 18, 2014 10:41 AMReply

    I'm really looking forward to this series. I just hope it is not as ridiculous as Homeland.

  • MD Kohn | April 30, 2014 1:28 AM

    Homeland IS ridiculous. Ridiculously AWESOME. ;)