'Tyrant': Adam Rayner leads a Middle Eastern 'Godfather'-like family saga

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It's not surprising that Dr. Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed is a runner.

FX's taut drama "Tyrant," premiering Tuesday, June 24, opens with its main character on his daily run. As the pilot unfolds, it becomes clear he ran away from a rarified life and wishes he could have kept running.

"Barry is a man running from himself, as he has been through his entire adult life," Adam Rayner ("Hawthorne") tells Zap2it of his character. "He has been doing it during his marriage, and running from aspects of himself. He's a malcontent, only inwardly."

Barry is a pediatrician, speaking in preternaturally calming tones, undoubtedly a result of having to calm frantic parents. Initially, he comes off as a gentle man, married for 19 years to Molly (Jennifer Finnigan, "Better With You"), also a doctor. They have two teenagers and are on their way to a wedding on his side of the family.

After 20 years away, he's reluctantly returning to his homeland. Protests are being staged in his country against his family.

The first indication of who this family is happens when they arrive late to the airport, and the plane -- the seats on which were all purchased by his father -- is waiting for them.

While the son has no problem instantly adapting to the life of luxury, the daughter, more like her dad, does. Barry petulantly stalks to his seat in coach, and Molly follows, trying to get him to open up. When it comes to his family, Barry is taciturn.

Once the family lands in Abbudin, a fictionalized Middle Eastern land, the audience understands why. Barry's father is the president, though dictator would also be correct.

The country is supposed to be "near Syria and Jordan, wedged in there," Rayner says. "It is not a Gulf state, not an Islamic theocracy. It is an authoritarian secular regime."

Of course those totalitarian bindings fray as anyone perceived to be an enemy of the state is slaughtered. Barry hails from the sort of wealth accrued from lifetimes of skimming a country's assets. 

His father has an iron grip on the nation, and Barry's flashbacks to scenes from his childhood explain why he suffers from PTSD.

The magnificent cinematography shows a scene in which Barry's father and older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), are cutting the ribbon on a new bridge. A tank comes barreling down on a path to kill them.

Jamal, groomed to lead, was the heir; Barry, the spare. Jamal, however, never had the inner fortitude of Barry. While Jamal could not kill an insurgent, Barry did.

The memories haunt him.

Barry had wanted no part of this, but Jamal completely bought into the life. Bred to believe he is superior to all, Jamal is consequently violent, brutal, vulgar and grossly entitled.

The scene in a steam room, in which he cuts off a man's finger, lingers. Jamal heard this man was planning an uprising at his son's wedding, the reason Barry and family have traveled to this exquisite corner of the world. The reactions of the two brothers perfectly illustrate the differences between them.

Barry intuitively understands the value of keeping your enemies close. He convinces Jamal to invite the would-be terrorists and their families and seat them among guests at each table of the wedding celebration to avoid gunplay.

Rayner and Finnigan, in separate interviews, liken the family dynamic to that in "The Godfather."

"Someone called it a saga," Finnigan says. "Someone compared it to 'The Godfather,' which I loved. In terms of theme, it is family. It is distribution of power, acquiring of power, loyalty, deception, fear, love and violence.

"There is everywhere to go from there," she continues, "and opening up an entirely new world to American audiences. This is bold."

Just as "The Sopranos" caught relentless criticism for its portrayal of Italian Americans, "Tyrant" has already attracted the attention of some Islamic groups, convinced, sight unseen, that it shows Muslims in a bad light.

The drama reveals a world many probably do not know too much about, a world of extreme wealth and all that buys. The palace is depicted as one would expect, luxurious and gorgeous, where the women wear haute couture and the men drive expensive 
sports cars.

Ultimately, this is the story of family and the fascinating dynamic of power.

As the aging father walks with his younger son through the palace, the father says, "After everything I have given the people, they are still not satisfied. They say they want freedom. Freedom to do what? Kill each other? I give them order and prosperity, and all they want is chaos."

Much more chaos is to come, and given how the pilot unwinds, Barry will be drafted back into service of his family and country - regardless of his wants. Then it's pretty likely that the soft-spoken pediatrician will live up to the title of "Tyrant."

"I am fascinated by how a person can distance themselves yet when they come back, there is this visceral switch and it is switched on," Finnigan says. "And he becomes who he is destined to be -- his father."
Photo/Video credit: FX