Review: Tyrant

Published in The Lewisville Texan Journal on March 24, 2016

I recently wrote a couple stories on Lewisville native Anne Winters for The Dallas Morning News and The Lewisville Texan Journal but had still never actually seen any of her filmography until this weekend. When I asked her what I should watch as an introduction to her career, she told me that it had to start with season one of FX’s drama, Tyrant.

I binge watched the entire series in the course of two days and looked online to learn more about it. I didn’t intend to. I just couldn’t stop.

Generally, reviews for and articles about Tyrant have been split. Some have written about how showrunners should have cast a Middle Eastern man instead of British actor Adam Rayner for the role of the main character.

Variety said the show’s second season ultimately didn’t win it the title of the “most improved series” for its second season, pointing out the shows flaws. Entertainment Weekly called it “stellar” and only lamented that it doesn’t feature Winters more and that writers have given her the “Meg Griffin” treatment. However, Winters told me to expect bigger things from her character this season.

People have even argued the politics and foreign policies of the show. Though reviews are relatively split, media agrees that Tyrant has improved since its first season.

However, reviews have not often said how Tyrant is a refreshing take on the stereotypical Hollywood fantasy genre featuring white people in British accents in a power conflict. In fact, Tyrant, though still filled with mayhem and eye candy, is a more realistic and somehow mature version of Game of Thrones without wizards and nudity. The only purely “fantastical” thing about it is the fictional Middle Eastern nation called Abbudin.

Tyrant follows a Pasadena, Calif. family and the unexpected roles they play in the political movements of a turbulent Abbudin. The family is led by Barry Al-Fayeed, a pediatrician and Abbudin expatriate, and his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan)—an American woman he met in medical school after fleeing his home as a teenager. The Al Fayeed’s have two teenage children, Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Winters).

Barry Al-Fayeed, born Bassam Al-Fayeed, is the younger son of the powerful Al-Fayeed family that has ruled the country for decades.

In the pilot, Barry’s father, Khalid Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris), leads the country with the help of Barry’s brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom). The American family flies to Abbudin for the wedding of Jamal’s son Ahmed (Cameron Gharaee) to Nusrat Al-Fayeed (Sibylla Deen), the daughter of the man who runs the state controlled media. Barry is apprehensive and struggles with the thought of returning to the home he abandoned 20 years ago.

Khalid dies during the wedding celebrations, which puts Jamal, a man of much weaker constitution than his younger brother, in charge of the country. Barry, knowing Jamal’s true nature and out of love for his family and country, delays their return to the United States in an effort to help counsel his brother.

The show poses an interesting and unique question: can a westernized Abbudin national introduce an effective democracy in a bullet-ridden Middle Eastern nation?

Gunfire, war crimes, power struggles, betrayal, paranoia and a caliphate group reminiscent of the Islamic State pull the country apart. Barry, the Ned Stark before Ned Stark got killed, tries to keep the country together.

The main reason I couldn’t stop watching Tyrant was character development. Writers made sure not to depict characters as Eastern infidels with no moral compass.

Unlike with Cersei Lannister, I actually understood the manipulative actions Leila Al-Fayeed (Moran Atias) took as a leader, wife and mother. I could logically agree with many of Jamal’s decisions and was heartbroken by the love he felt for his brother, unlike with the terrible Joffrey. I shouted along with rebel leaders like Ihab Rashid (Alexander Karim) who sought to dethrone Jamal. I felt frustrations for the inaction of the U.S. government and Barry’s softness and loyalty to his family. I was annoyed, but ultimately understood, Molly’s apparent 180-degree switch in her opinion of the Al-Fayeed’s, her husband and the country of Abbudin. I mourned the death of characters I didn’t like but understood and rejoiced in the death of key characters I detested.

Every actor has rocked their roles, but none more so than Barhom and his infectious gap-toothed smile. The subtle nuances in Barhom’s facial expressions to his grandiose voice control and body movement gave viewers an understanding of humanity, morality, Middle Eastern conflict and the rise of dictators.

Tyrant is also a visually mesmerizing fantastical epic with brilliant set and costume design—even if there were no mythical creatures with magical powers to inspire creative design. The show is filmed in Turkey, Israel, Morocco and Hungary. As Jamal even points out, the tile work inside of the palace is superior to all others.

I also appreciated that many cast in the show looked ethnically Middle Eastern, most used Arabic accents and attention to Muslim beliefs and culture was not spared.

The Washington Post said Tyrant, which is produced by Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24), “is like a telenovela has suffered a head-on collision with Al Jazeera.” The author shouts claims of predictability. But what’s more predictable than conflict in the middle east? And what’s wrong if the show is predictable? Can’t we see it’s predictability as poignant commentary on human nature?

If you’re just looking to see the depth of Winters acting, don’t bother with Tyrant. She’s only minorly featured in 14 of the show’s 22 episodes to date. But if you’re looking to kick back for a heart-racing 22 hours next weekend, catch all episodes of Tyrant on Hulu Plus until the show returns to FX this summer.


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