At the recent Prouduced By Conference in Burbank, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf discussed his decision to pass on “Homeland,” the Emmy-winning CIA thriller about a returning POW who may or may not have been turned while held captive in the Middle East. Landgraf regretted it, obviously, and claimed he wouldn’t let it happen again. Hence his series order of “Tyrant,” a new thriller from “Homeland” creator Gideon Raff (he wrote and directed “Prisoners of War,” the original Israeli series on which “Homeland” was based) and current “Homeland” producer Howard Gordon (who now runs “Tyrant” after Raff departed the show, due to disputes with Gordon). But while touches of the Showtime hit are evident in the scenery and structure, “Tyrant” borrows more from American films like “The Godfather” and “Gladiator” — with mixed results.
Barry Al-Fayeed is a family man. He’s a pediatrician living in Los Angeles with a wife he’s been married to for 19 years, and two children in their teens. He cares about his patients. He jogs. He’s also the son of the most powerful man in the fictional country of Abbudin, a dictator competing with other “elected presidents” in the Middle East for power. Barry abandoned that world long ago and hasn’t looked back until now — his nephew is getting married and he has decided to take his family to meet his father, mother, and brother for the first time.
Sound familiar? It should. Other than the fictional setting and Barry’s children, the premise of “Tyrant” feels very much like a Middle Eastern version of “The Godfather” — a straight-arrow son reluctantly returns to a family from whom he’s disassociated and a business besieged with violence. Like Sonny of that film, the country’s chosen successor and Barry’s older brother, Jamal, has quite a temper and is first introduced during a sex scene with a woman who is not his wife. And their father Khaled is subdued, but genuinely caring and a believer in his methods (Vito carried more self-doubt, but illustrating all of the similarities between the two without spoilers is impossible).
Much like Michael, a returning soldier clearly capable of handling his affairs, Barry’s reappearance is met with a warm embrace and concealed doubt. His family is unsure if he can do what’s necessary when it comes to running the family’s regime, but before the pilot wraps, Barry — now going by his given name of Bassam — proves himself an intellectually savvy political leader while also showing he’s capable of just about anything.
A touch of “Gladiator” enters the mix during a late act twist in the premiere (literally — “Tyrant” marks its commercial breaks with Act 1, Act 2, etc), and “Tyrant” remains reliant on “Homeland”-esque flashbacks for twists. In general, Raff’s new drama lacks a strong identity of its own. For being one of the few shows to feature an international cast of mostly unknown actors (Justin Kirk, of “Angels in America” and “Weeds,” is probably the biggest name in the cast list), plus a story set in a world most TV audiences are unfamiliar with, “Tyrant” feels markedly familiar and at times too predictable.
While it’s not entirely paint-by-numbers, it lacks the shock factor of its creator’s previous show, for better and for worse. The lack of big revelations may help extend its life — “Homeland” is looking pretty burnt out after just three seasons — but “Tyrant” still lacks the visceral rush and addictive nature of Raff’s Showtime series. Its characters are less complex and most of the actors don’t do them any favors. Jennifer Finnigan, who plays Barry’s wife Molly, has a perpetual deer-in-headlights look (perhaps playing up the blonde American stereotype too much), and her husband isn’t much more emotive.
Adam Raynor plays Barry/Bassam — a man who actually has two identities — as if he’s constantly hiding them both. He doesn’t convey his thoughts or actions in a physically obvious way, and if keeping his expressions muted is a character choice, it’s flawed. Raynor lacks the on screen charisma and magnitude of Damian Lewis (who played Brody on “Homeland” with a fervor of nervous tension), Al Pacino (who, in his early days, used subdued intensity to his advantage) or Russell Crowe (who can say more with a whisper than most actors can when shouting). Granted, these are all award-winning thespians, but so far “Tyrant” needs a stronger central force to prove itself continuously compelling (and, as some have already pointed out, it’s distracting that a Middle Eastern man is played by a white Brit).
That being said, there is one actor who stands out: While Sonny remains many fans’ favorite among the Corleone family, his substitute in “Tyrant” stands head over heels above the rest of the group. Jamal is villainous with a temper always on the edge of uncontrollable, and his introduction makes him seem unforgivable, but Ashraf Borham (“The Kingdom”) makes the character feel uniquely watchable, even sympathetic. By the fourth episode (the last provided for review), Jamal is the most unpredictable element of the show.
Not all television needs to be shocking, and “Tyrant” may need time to find its groove over the course of Season 1. Yet there’s a fine line between settling in and being too loose from episode to episode. There’s filler scenes throughout the first four episodes, and the connections to past greatness are fading fast. “Tyrant” is not “Homeland” or “The Godfather.” While its lack of political commentary may have been a conscious exclusion (it seems that way, given the show’s fictional setting), “Tyrant” needs to find a voice somewhere.