Jennifer Finnigan, Adam Rayner
FX's latest drama Tyrant is a strange case.
The drama (premiering Tuesday at 10/9c) stars Adam Rayner as Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed, the second son of a dictator (Nasser Faris) who left his homeland — the fictional Middle Eastern country of Abuddin — and started his own family in California. But when Barry's wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) urges him to return to Abuddin after 20 years for his nephew's wedding, Barry is quickly sucked back into the family drama he tried to escape, most notably by his loose-cannon brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom).
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Although the show's attempt to lift the veil on life in the Middle East is the most compelling aspect of the project, it's also perhaps the most problematic when it comes to selling a commercial television show. But the show's creative team — which has trudged on despite the departure of creator Gideon Raff and a difficult pilot shoot that included director David Yates replacing Oscar winner Ang Lee before production began and extensive re-shoots after it ended — remains as ambitious as ever.
"I have a very deep curiosity about that part of the world and particularly about the story that's going on in that part of the world, which is nothing short of a political and social earthquake of upheaval," executive producer Howard Gordon says. "To me, it's the story of our time. I felt like this is an opportunity to work through some of the dramatic challenges that are facing that part of the world and the people who live there, and, at the same time, tackle themes and story ideas that I think are universal: power and family. It seemed like an interesting confluence of current events and a good old-fashioned family saga."
Adds executive producer Craig Wright, with whom Gordon teamed after Raff's departure: "My feeling when I read the first draft that I read was [about] what an opportunity this show presented. It seems so exciting to me, provocative. But also an opportunity for growth. To take people from a part of the world that many Americans only associate with the destruction of the World Trade Center and then be able to see their struggles on a day to day basis under the oppressive regime in which they're operating — that seems to me very open-minded and humanizing."
Indeed, the show's political trappings serve mostly as a backdrop to the Godfather-esque family story playing out. But at the center of the larger drama is Barry's internal conflict about the person he was before he left Abuddin — a person he's desperately trying not to become again. "Barry has not just estranged himself and exiled himself from this country and from his family, but actually from his own essential character," Gordon says. "These are things he has willfully turned away from and stuck his head in the sand to avoid dealing with. And now as an adult, he realizes his young adult apprehensions ... aren't valid anymore. He has to confront his responsibility as an adult and as an Al-Fayeed."
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And a major part of that involves reconciling Barry's particularly strained relationship with his aging father. "It's something only a therapist could unravel," Rayner says with a laugh. "On a surface level, he absolutely blames his father for the environment he grew up in, what he witnessed, and how he saw his brother treated. On a deeper level, he still wants to prove to his father than he should have been worthy of the attention that he didn't receive. And it's that need to prove himself that he's afraid of because that's what's going to drive him to go to the darker places of his personality."
However, Barry must also confront how his old life collides with his new family, who know little to nothing about Barry's troubled past. "To [be] with someone half your life and then all of a sudden see sides of them that are foreign to you, it's scary," Finnigan says of her character Molly's feelings about Barry's "awakening." "It doesn't mean that they can't somehow make it work. But the question is, will she be able to find happiness there with this new man? The moment he steps off the plane, he very clearly becomes a true Al-Fayeed again. She was never married to Bassam Al Fayeed; she married Barry the pediatrician from Pasadena. It's exciting, but it's more than she bargained for."
The first step in Barry re-embracing his heritage is to reign in his brother Jamal, who, unlike Barry, was the more mild-mannered child and has since become hardened and dangerous. "[Barry] fights so hard to make his brother the leader he wants him to be," Rayner says. "[But] he begins to realize that's just not possible. Jamal doesn't have that within him. His brother is too damaged to be in charge." Adds Gordon: "Barry turns out to be very good at this, and I think that it surprises him when he does. It's a very steep learning curve, but part of that is obviously his nature."
But Gordon also suggests the brothers aren't necessarily competing. "These are two brothers who do love each other," he says. "They're not jockeying for naked power, but really trying to work through the way this family business should run. And does it mean being strong? Does it mean being a compliant? Does it mean embracing democracy? It really is a long negotiation between these two brothers that winds up obviously culminating in something very dramatic and very emotional." Adds Wright: "They obviously both have a lot to learn from each other. The danger is that Barry might learn too much from Jamal."
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Which brings us back to the inherent conflict in Barry's duality as a character. And even though there are shades of a Don Draper or Walter White in Barry, Gordon and Wright don't view him as an antihero. "I'm very interested in the moral questions of what it means to be a good man," Gordon says. " [I like] characters who are put in situations that make us wonder how we might react in similar situations and how those characters illuminate certain human truths and tell us about ourselves."
Adds Wright: "[Barry thinks], 'I'm a good person. I've actually fled this part of the world in order to make it simpler for me to be good. And now I'm drawn back in — again, for good reasons; my family needs me, my brother needs me — and in order to deliver on those loyalties, I am gradually, every day, going to be drawn closer and closer to the part of myself that is capable of evil. Every step of the way, it's going to be argued, within me and without, as trying to do a good thing.' That paradox to me is fascinating."
It's that human story that Wright believes will draw audiences to this type of unconventional TV drama. "The ultimate purpose of this show, in my opinion, is to put a face — a lot of faces — on the Arab world, and by telling unexpected but 'normal' drama stories about people with whom we're unfamiliar, we're going to learn to see that they're a lot like us," he says. "We're all human beings. That's the reason to watch the show."
And Wright insists that, even as the show dramatizes Barry's dark side, Tyrant aims to subvert stereotypes. "Honesty... on both sides is what's going to make the best story," he says. "There is bloody moral mayhem on both sides or the world. There is moral culpability on both sides of the world. There is tragic cultural blindness on both sides of the world. Let's just be honest about all of it. That would be my hope for the show. I don't think we depict anything that isn't true."
Tyrant airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX. For more on the show, watch the video below to see why the show is tonight's editors' pick.