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

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 24, 2014 at 1:01PM

The story of a Middle Eastern dictator's son going home after two decades in exile features a white actor in the leading role and sexual assault as a lazy plot device.
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Tyrant

"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.



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