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Racially Miscast and Rape-Heavy, 'Tyrant' Breaks FX's Winning Streak

Television
by Sam Adams
June 24, 2014 1:01 PM
12 Comments
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"Tyrant," Howard Gordon's drama about an Arab-American pediatrician's return to the country where his father rules as a brutal dictator, premieres tonight at 10pm on FX. Will you be watching? If your answer is "Yes," you either haven't read the advance reviews or you're morbidly curious if the show's as bad as critics say it is.

The advance reviews for "Tyrant" aren't as blisteringly negative as the ones for "Mixology" or "Black Box," but after the roll FX has been on lately with shows like "The Americans," "Louie" and "Fargo," it's clear it comes as quite a bring-down. Most incensed is the Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan, who says that the show's clichéd use of sexual assault as a means of establishing its male characters, and ignoring its female ones, "finally broke a certain part of my brain."

Apparently "Tyrant" wasn't confident that showing Jamal doing many other violent and crass things in the first couple of hours would convince the audience he is a scary person. Taking the sexual assault or woman-in-peril shortcuts, as "Tyrant" does repeatedly, isn't just offensive here because it plays into a host of stereotypes about Arab males and the dangers they purportedly present. It also made me check out of the story for other reasons as well.

I've just seen certain scenarios involving nameless or barely characterized women too many times. I've just had it with the sexual violence and physical subjugation of women that mostly exists to add "edge" or "atmosphere" to a show or to add complexity to someone else's backstory. Women's bodies are not the canvases on which storytellers can sketch out their sophomoric ideas about what constitutes "dangerous" storytelling. Enough with those played-out and offensive cliches.

At HifFix, Daniel Fienberg takes offense at another of "Tyrant's" core elements: the casting of white British actor Adam Rayner in the leading role. During the show long and troubled pre-production—Ang Lee was in as the director of the pilot, until he was out; David Yates' first version was deemed to lack "intimacy" and was radically reworked in editing; the entire writing staff was canned, and co-creator Gideon Raff left as well—the show's producers said they tried to cast an actor of Arab descent, or at least one who "looked authentically Middle Eastern," and failed. Not so fast, Fienberg says:

If Rayner were giving a performance that felt revelatory, at least you could take the "best actor for the role" cliché -- ignoring, once again, that "the role" is a half-Arab character and a half-Arab character meant to be at least several years older than Rayner's 36 -- at its word and Middle Eastern actors could have said, "Damn. This is the probably the most substantive major TV role available in my lifetime and I genuinely don't know the next time a casting sheet will read '40-year-old Arab family man' for a lead role and they gave it to a white guy. Oh well. At least he's giving a tremendous performance." Instead, the message is, "This guy who you've probably never heard of before is the wrong age for the part and the wrong ethnicity for the part and he's only kinda OK. And we still went with him over every available actor actually fitting the description." 


The ratings will ultimately tell the tale, but with reviews like these, it's lucky Vulture named FX its network of the year before they'd seen "Tyrant."

Tyrant premieres June 24 at 10pm on FX.

More reviews of FX's "Tyrant"

James Poniewozik, Time

There’s not a fleshed-out character in the show, beginning with Barry’s stock-villainous brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), who we immediately meet raping a subject with her own husband and children still in her house. To a person, the characters are types: the shallow American kids, the dissolute playboys, the noble protesters and journalists, the cynical advisers, sneering elites and sad-eyed children. The problem isn’t that "Tyrant" portrays a troubled region as troubled; it’s that it doesn’t use its time to begin to make this world as real as ours.


Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

"Tyrant" is aiming to be a complex political drama ripped from recent headlines. (There are, at various points in the four episodes I've seen, references to or stories modeled on the Arab Spring, Benghazi and the recent turmoil in Syria.) What it unfortunately plays like is a Middle Eastern version of "Dallas." Despite the novel setting, everything about the show feels stodgy and clichéd.


Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

It’s also never clear why Rayner is the center of this show. Though he’s not a bad actor by any means, Bassam needs someone magnetic playing him, and that’s not really Rayner’s thing. (He is, instead, quietly brooding.) Bassam is mixed-race — his mother is British, while his father is Arabic — so there’s at least flimsy rationale for this being yet another dark cable drama series centered on a white dude. But Rayner is such a bland presence at the show’s center that it’s never clear why the show went with him instead of anybody else, particularly an actor of Arabic descent, who at least would have been something different from every other show on cable.


Pilot Viruet, Flavorwire

Here’s the thing: "Tyrant" is full of stereotypes and stock characters, but those problems are evident in all of its characters. Nearly everyone on the show is an annoying bore, and there’s not much reason to root for anyone. It’s as if Gordon tried to skirt the controversy of a heavy subject and controversial setting by creating a show that is too lazy and contrived to get worked up over.


Andy Greenwald, Grantland

FX deserves real credit for attempting to stage a drama in such unfamiliar settings: This is a show featuring a predominantly Arab cast, set in a part of the world that is generally seen only through the lens of a war reporter’s camera — or worse. But so far at least, the gulf between intention and execution is wider than the Dead Sea. 


Robert Bianco, USA Today

Abbudin, of course, is no more real than Aladdin's lamp, and while the problems and people shown here may exist somewhere, the question remains whether the collection of Middle Eastern tropes portrayed is either realistic or wise. Still, if this is the story FX and Gordon want to tell, that's their right. The bigger concern is why this seems to be the only story about the Middle East we're willing to tell, and how that warps our perception.

That really is an old story — and it's way past time someone gave us a new one.

Alessandra Stanley, New York Times

“Tyrant” is a sophisticated thriller that oversimplifies its characters and narrative: The pilot tries so hard to make everything clear that it becomes too obvious where the story is headed, and what people will do next. Fortunately, subsequent episodes are a little less expository, and more action-driven.


Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

As it stands now, the pilot is strong and entertaining but not immediately a knockout punch (the second and third episodes were not available prior to the premiere — a rarity in FX’s historically efficient and critic-friendly world). But that first episode ends in a place that will make viewers want to tune in the following week to see where it goes. And where "Tyrant" goes will be crucial — because while the storyline seems rather clear, the pilot doesn’t establish a tone and a direction that’s immediately identifiable.


David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

"Tyrant" has had to overcome so many obstacles on the way to its Tuesday premier on FX, it's a small miracle that it's gotten this far. Now the question is, will American audiences buy into a family drama where the family in question is not only Arab, but headed by the ruthless dictator of a Middle Eastern nation?

They should because the series has enough going for it to merit attention, especially beyond the relatively standard-issue pilot episode.


Television
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12 Comments

  • Regina F | August 27, 2014 7:07 PMReply

    The first few episodes I really loved Bassam and hated Jamal Alfayeed. But towards the end of the season Idk if it was that I felt sympathy for Jamal because he was trying so hard to do the right thing sometimes overriding this internal conflict or if it was the fact that Bassam was so....misguided in his plans. The quote the lady made to him in the show really hit the nail on the head: "you're either an idealist or you want the power" Either way it's a problem." This show was engaging and all though it was no 24 or Homeland, I think that that's the reason it was so appealing. It was the fact that I didn't expect a lot from some of the actors but the fact that it's a step outside of my culture into the reality of someone else's. I respect it just for being amazing without being too much of "Americanized TV."

  • sarah | August 27, 2014 11:40 AMReply

    Please women in western cultures are more sexual objects than in any undeveloped world. Americans have a messiah complex..stfu

  • Debbie G | August 22, 2014 8:15 PMReply

    My husband and I are hooked on this show. We watch it on demand because we are seniors and can't stay awake until eleven. I can't believe that people are criticizing Adam Rayner. He is perfect for the part and looks much older than 36. I've spent a lot of time in Middle Eastern countries and even lived in Iran for a short time before the fall of the Shah. I also dated an Arab, and stereotypes are there for a reason. I am going to be sad to see the finale next week. I hope the show comes back for another season, but I don't know where it could go.

  • JiggerJones | August 6, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    It's not a stereotype Arab males really do believe that women are only good for their pleasure and nothing else. Please cut the politically correct bullshit and speak the truth for once, this show actually whitewashes the middle east in my opinion.

  • karen mulhern | August 3, 2014 5:19 PMReply

    I wanted to like this series but 30mins into the pilot every major character annoyed the F*ck out of me. The last straw was when Bassam suggests his vicious brother should invite the terror planning warlord to his son's wedding as a means of assuring nothing bad would happen.
    Like in what reality would this even be suggested??? So stupid. I thought if this is how this show is going, I'm jumping out NOW!

  • QualisRex | July 23, 2014 12:03 AMReply

    I guess I'm trying to understand how this show is "racially miscast". The only people who would say this are the people who are uneducated and themselves racially bigoted about the Middle East. The show in this fictitious country is obviously drawing heavily from examples (see: horror stories) from the Saddam regime; a Muslim but secular totalitarian/oligarchical government being constantly challenged by radical Muslim faction. But change the Western attire and this could just as easily be Oman or Kuwait. Does the author of this blog not realize that even in the middle East there ARE light skinned Arabs? Black Arabs? Jews? What am I missing that makes this "racially miscast"?

  • Keely | July 15, 2014 11:01 PMReply

    Fact check. Excuse me but don't write BS. Benghazi never should have happened. Ambassador Stevens never should have been taken. What kind of liberal media bias is this?!

  • Keely | July 15, 2014 10:47 PMReply

    What person with any common sense or internet access doesn't understand what's happening? Please get rid of Molly. She is the entire reason why other countries think Americans are ignorant and idiotic.

  • Keely | July 15, 2014 10:07 PMReply

    Please get rid of Molly. She is the worst. Thank you.

  • Bela | July 10, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    Adam Rayner IS the reason, and the ONLY reason why I am watching this show. If he was not in this, I would not be watching. He is an incredible actor. Even the trailer of him bent down in the sand made my decision to watch this show no matter how crappy it may turn out to be. Did you critics even watch The Hunted????? Yes I do have some problems with the story lines, especially the above mentioned rape scene, and the pacing of the show itself, but that would be the writers' problem and not the actors. who are trying their best. My only complaint...is that wife character. There is no chemistry between those two and that is a disappointment. But just as Jodie below mentions, its a TV show! Get over it. Besides, it is up to the viewer that ultimately decides the fate of a show and not the critic.

  • Jodie | July 9, 2014 1:34 AMReply

    Omg....it's a show on TV!! Not a reality series. All these so called newspaper editors and critics get a life. Really...do you people think everything a news reporter or article is believed by readers? Get real people......and not everything the media criticizes and disects will "offend people" because we live realistically.

  • J | June 24, 2014 2:04 PMReply

    Honestly no one cares. It's just a show and if they can't show something because it will "offend people" then this society should burn.

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