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Why FX's Middle Eastern Drama 'Tyrant' Promises to Be One of the Year's Most Hot-Button Series

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire January 16, 2014 at 3:20PM

"Tyrant," a new FX drama from the creator of "Homeland," is set in a fictional Middle Eastern country rules by a dictatorship.
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Patrick Harbron/FX Adam Rayner, Alice Krige as Amira and Nasser Faris in 'Tyrant'

"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.

This article is related to: Television, TV News, TCA Winter 2014, Tyrant, FX, Howard Gordon, Gideon Raff, Adam Rayner, Justin Kirk