Can this Middle Eastern version of The Godfather grow beyond a collection stereotypes and one-sided characters?
A corrupt family is throwing a wedding, and the patriarch’s youngest son, a civilian who doesn’t really want to get involved in the family business, is bringing his all-American gal to the party. The patriarch ends up in the hospital; the older son ends up out of the picture; and the youngest son (surprise!) ends up reluctantly running the family. No, this is not a reductive synopsis of The Godfather — I’m talking about FX’s new original series Tyrant.
If you want to catch the series yourself, it airs on FX Tuesdays at 10pm — or you can watch it online on FX or Hulu, provided you log in with your cable provider first.
Before we get into the show, it should be noted that Tyrant is filmed beautifully. Palace vistas, long shots of the LA River, even an empty airplane cabin are all masterfully captured with vibrant color and opulence. Where the cinematography truly excels is in subtext. Just like the airplane, the palace is empty, as well as the LA River. These long, beautiful shots evoke the notion that opulence is a lonely endeavor, and the price for such majesty is worse than one can imagine… or at least as worse than one is letting himself believe.
That “one” is Bassad Al Fayeed (not to be confused with real-life Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who he resembles in some ways), the youngest son of Kahled Fayeed, the dictator of a small, fictional Middle Eastern nation called Abbudin. Bassad (Barry, his American nickname) left his country and family when he was sixteen, escaping to that magical place where all beautiful people (and, by the way, he is quite beautiful) go to escape their pasts: Los Angeles. He’s a pediatrician in a beautiful home that could be in Pasadena. He’s created a beautiful life for himself with a blond wife and two kids who reek of LA privilege and luster. At one point, Sammy, Barry’s son, actually says, “Who even takes the 405?” As far as privileged yet troubled LA families with a conflicted patriarch are concerned, the Donovans in Showtime’s Ray Donovan do a much better job at pretending to exist.
It’s been twenty years since Barry’s been back home, and now that his nephew is getting married, it’s time for him to leave Los Angeles. We’re given clues his trip will be disastrous from the very beginning, the largest being a few quick shots of Pasadena’s famed Suicide Bridge. The bridge, menacing in its height and scale, appears when a phone call from back home interrupts Barry’s morning jog, a sure sign things are about to get worse. Just as Barry is doing one last healthy thing for himself, the past literally calls him as a bridge famous for death looms in the background. Barry is reluctant when asked to return home for a wedding, but, family is family, and obligation is the hallmark of family, so, taking the plane his father has made sure is empty by purchasing all the other seats, Barry and his clan of LA suburbanites head east.
And now we meet Jamal, Barry’s older brother and the father of the groom. Jamal, if we’re sticking with The Godfather model, is Sonny Corleone. That is, Sonny Corleone mixed with a huge dose of Uday Hussein, who Jamal is probably actually based on. Our first encounter with Jamal is a sexual assault he’s perpetrating on a woman whose husband and children are in the hall, waiting for the rape to be over. From the beginning, it’s clear Jamal is a just an awful human being.
Life at the palace is complicated for Barry. He doesn’t want to stay there, having made hotel reservations, but his family, especially Sammy, wants to bask in the stereotypical luxuries of a wealthy Middle East. Not unlike the second, and horrible, Sex and the City movie, these white Americans are treated to multiple cars, sweeping landscapes, and tourmaline pools. Even Barry’s mother, an Englishwoman meant to add a bit of false sophistication to Kahled’s demeanor, wants them to stay.
Things get dirty pretty fast. There’s a confrontation in a steam bath, the threat of a bomb attack on the wedding, and even a blowjob in a car that winds up with Jamal almost fatally wounded. Barry knows his family is dirty, and I also think he knows that he could help if he really wanted to, but Pasadena is calling him. He can’t let his wife and children get wrapped up in the deplorable dealings of his disgusting family. And yet, just like Michael Corleone, when Kahled Al Fayeed kicks the bucket at the wedding, it’s Barry everyone turns to in order to make things right.
As I’ve already mentioned, the stereotypes in this show are almost laughable. The street markets, the rifles, even the hair obviously applied to Jamal’s shoulders, all add up to the continued perception that the entirety of the Middle East is tyranny and death. There was an opportunity here to show a strong family doing what it had to do to survive, but maybe the American public isn’t ready to see a deeper portrayal of Middle Easterners. Instead, the writers have taken the easy way out and have made all the characters blindingly one-dimensional, the exception being Barry, who by the end of the episode, after slapping his son twice, is revealed to have personally executed a man by gunshot when he was child. These are the first glimpses that a true conflict is beginning to stir in the stomach of this character. But it’s only that one character, which is hardly enough to maintain an entire show.
Speaking of taking the easy way out, the writing was stiff at times, occasionally dripping with gimmick and ploy. At one point, Kahled Al Fayeed rattles off the names of other, true-life dictators, a desperate attempt at verisimilitude that’s as transparent as fountain water. More to that point, during the bachelorette party, a famous piece of music performed by the legendary Umm Kulthum plays in the background, a poor and obvious attempt at authenticity that falls flat. This would be like portraying a modern-day American bachelorette party and playing Rosemary Clooney while the guests took body shots off G-stringed strippers.
If I were to make predictions now, based on how things ended up in The Godfather, at some point Barry will have to choose whether or not to have Jamal killed. By the time this decision must be made, will Barry have finally given in to the fact that he is one of these one-dimensional monsters? Or will he remember life in Southern California and let his brother live? Only time will tell. Also, Barry must eventually face the conundrum of his son’s budding homosexuality, which was hit pretty hard in this first episode. I can only hope Barry won’t have his son stoned to death, but who knows how far down the sandy rabbit hole Barry will be by then.
I can’t lie. As stereotypical and ridiculous as most of the show seemed, I’m still interested in seeing how this all plays out. Like I said earlier, the filming is gorgeous. Beyond that, the fact that most of the male actors are also gorgeous has something to do with my interest, and for that I’m definitely not proud. I want to know exactly how hairy-shouldered Jamal reveals he didn’t die in that car crash. I want to see if Barry’s struggle with the darker sides of himself become any more genuine, and I definitely want to see if Sammy gets any action in the steam bath.