Plot: Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) is a wildly successful pediatrician living in Los Angeles. He has a beautiful wife named Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and two teenaged children named Emma (Anne Winters) and Sammy (Noah Silver). For all intents and purposes, Bassam lives a fantastic life. However, behind his successful present lies a disturbing past: He’s the self-exiled son of the ruthless dictator of Abbudin, a war torn nation in the Middle East. When Bassam returns to his homeland for his nephew’s wedding, his entire life is turned upside down.
There’s an old saying about money that I’m sure everyone has heard millions of times: Money cannot buy you true happiness. That’s especially prevalent in today’s society where many kids grow up with dreams of six figure salaries and unreasonably large houses. People tend to forget that, while a solid paycheck can buy a lot of things that do give joy, absolute happiness can only be formed through things not purchased with currency. It’s why a simple handwritten note of pure affection can make someone feel more loved than opening a gift worth thousands of dollars.
That’s a theme explored openly throughout the premiere episode of Tyrant, FX’s brand new summer drama. It’s hammered in throughout the hour plus airing that the Al-Fayeed’s are exceptionally wealthy. President Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris) is a ruthless dictator who has risen his family up to dominance while everyone else is suffering. As U.S. Diplomat John Tucker (Justin Kirk) states at the wedding, the per capita income of Abbudin is through the roof. Clearly all of that income was attained through bloodlust and death, but everyone except Bassam is completely swept up in the endless wealth.
It’s this blind acceptance of greed that is easily one of the biggest problems of this show. Despite having everything available to him, Bassam still fled Abbudin because he knew that money isn’t everything. Clearly those ideals weren’t spread to his family however. The moment his two children witness the sprawling Al-Fayeed manse, they are completely smitten by the life their father could have had. They then spend the remainder of the episode basically complaining every single time Bassam tries to take them out of that mindset. Emma whines like a little brat and Sammy openly praises his sexually assaulting uncle Jamal (Ashraf Barhom). For whatever reason, it seems as if these children have zero knowledge of how their family became so wealthy. This flagrant disregard easily flies in the face of exceptionally well documented human rights violations performed by their own grandfather. Needless to say, this does not make the children endearing. There’s also not-so-subtle clues that Sammy is gay and you know what that means for a show like this. Hint: It takes place in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, Bassam and his wife Molly don’t fare any better. Even though Bassam is supposed to be the moral center of the show, Adam Rayner plays him off as a boring leading man. I don’t know what emotion, or lack thereof, is connected with staring stoically any every little thing, but Bassam is clearly stuck in that single gear. It doesn’t matter if he’s slapping his son for being a jerk, trying to push off his wife’s constant questions, or learning about his father’s death. Bassam has the emotional range of a rock. Molly on the other hand is completely emotional but is apparently entirely clueless to her husband’s personal turmoil. It’s almost as if she’s just meeting Bassam for the first time and they weren’t already married for 19 years. The fact that Bassam has a horrible past with his family is flagrantly obvious, yet Molly is too dense to notice. The Al-Fayeed’s have a detailed history of being horrible people. How can she not realize that’s exactly why her husband left?
There is a gem of something special here though. Regardless of the negative aspects surrounding these main characters, Bassam’s horrific history is something that can lead to good storytelling. As we saw throughout flashbacks, Jamal was groomed at an early age to be the future leader, simply because he was born before Bassam. We see Khaled saving Jamal from a suicide bomber but completely ignoring his other son. We watch Khaled trying to teach Jamal how to bring “justice” to militants who would resist their rule. We also witness Jamal running away from the pain, only to have young Bassam step in and do what his brother could not. The moment we see Bassam kill a man is when we learn he clearly bears a ruthless darkside. Even though Jamal is the one sexually assaulting women multiple times and the new man in power, Bassam’s unrelenting demeanor does make him more dangerous. It’s very possible that Bassam fled because he knew he was more like their murderous father than he once thought.
Speaking of Jamal, he succeeds in expressing emotion in ways that Bassam cannot touch. Jamal literally spends the entire episode as a crazy man but it’s clear he only does that because he’s broken. The constant demands of his father completely ruined his developing psyche as a young child. While Bassam was somehow able to bury his horrors away, Jamal is wholly consumed by them to the point of self-destruction. He was raised to believe that power is everything and now he spends his entire adult life reveling in authority. Yet when his father dies and he becomes the new leader, Jamal responds by driving drunk, forcing a woman to give him oral sex, and then crashes over a cliff when she bites him. He finally gets the ultimate rule he clearly craves but is unwilling to accept it without his controlling father there. This really makes Jamal a character that, despite being an absolute monster, is entirely tragic.
Tyrant has potential to be something. I’ll admit, this premiere wasn’t terrible. It was boring and overly wrought with repetitive dialogue, but it wasn’t terrible. It definitely wasn’t great though. Bassam’s family from the States are completely obnoxious and our lead himself is an emotionless void. There’s also the fact that Bassam will clearly be torn between leaving Abbudin and staying to fulfill his birthright, something that basically eradicates his entire history of abandoning his family. Yet Jamal is an admittedly engrossing antagonist and the idea of Bassam really being dangerous does, albeit predictably, give him some interesting depth. All things considered, you could do a lot worse than this, but there’s enough better programs out there that easily should take priority.
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Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.