'Tyrant' review: Politics versus family drives intriguing FX drama

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"Tyrant" has all the makings of greatness -- or at least great soapiness. The new FX drama from "Homeland" and "24" executive producer Howard Gordon balances family with politics in a show that constantly questions what the right choice is when torn between the two, but oftentimes finds itself bogged down in soap opera-style drama that distracts from the greater, more ambitious story that it's trying to tell.

Set in a fictional Middle Eastern country Abbudin, "Tyrant" follows the story of Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the second son of Abbudin's oppressive leader, who is closer to a dictator than his title of president implies. As a teenager, Bassam left Abbudin for the United States and there started a family that seems straight out of the Barbie catalogue: Gorgeous, skinny blonde wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and picture-perfect teenage son Sammy (Noah Silver) and daughter Emma (Anne Winters). He hasn't returned to Abbudin for 20 years, which is where "Tyrant" begins.

The question constantly being asked in the premiere is "What kept Barry away?" When that answer is revealed, it's not the one that's expected. While some elements of the pilot are lacking -- there's an over-the-top rape scene (more on that later), and oftentimes Barry's American family seem completely unbelievable -- but it's that reveal of a deeper, darker side to Barry that provides the hook for the series.

Even without the answer that's revealed via flashback, it's clear why Barry has no desire to once again be Bassam Al-Fayeed. In the first four episodes FX sent out for review, each passing day that Barry stays in Abbudin reveals an even greater horror hidden beneath the surface. Though his Al-Fayeed family says his father, Khaled (Nasser Faris), changed from the man who once gassed children to find "peace" in his war-torn country, it's clear that Abbudin has reached a political boiling point. 

Barry's brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) and Jamal's son Ahmed (Cameron Gharaee), whose wedding is what draws Barry and his American family back to Abbudin in the first place, are barely passable human beings as well. One troubling element of Gordon fully taking the reins on "Tyrant" is that he might push characters like Jamal too deeply into "villain" territory when it seems like he's trying to analyze them as flawed people. 

Zap2it saw two different versions of the pilot episode, and in the version that's airing a scene is added in where Jamal rapes a woman in a truly horrifying and disgusting way. He was unlikable enough before that scene was added, and a payoff for the rape -- if there is one -- wasn't present in the first four episodes, making the change very questionable. This sort of heavy-handedness wasn't present in episodes 2-4, but they aren't final cut and could change before making their way to air.

The politics of "Tyrant" is the show's most interesting facet, and though the series is sure to be criticized for its fictional depiction of a troubled Middle Eastern country, it's Barry trying to fix this land he ignored for so long that is "Tyrant's" biggest draw. Getting too hung up on the family drama, like the history between Barry and Jamal's wife, Leila (Moran Atias), or the fact that Barry's son Sammy (Noah Silver) is a closeted gay man having a secret affair, is intriguing to a point. Getting too embroiled in the emotional and relationship-driven elements of the show, however, could prove problematic. Just look at "Homeland."

"Tyrant" has been criticized by some for Barry being the white ( literal and figurative) knight of Abbudin and seemingly the only character with perspective, but hopefully this is just the beginning of his larger story arc. Many of the show's characters are black and white, good or evil, but the pilot is full of promises for future blurred lines between the two. As Jamal becomes a bit more sympathetic in later episodes (though that seems close to its breaking point), surely Barry will have to make darker choices as well.

It really is the hook about Barry at the end of the pilot that makes "Tyrant" such an intriguing series. Once it's revealed that Barry is not the man he at first seems to be, that sets off a ticking time bomb of promise for him to return to being that person again. Barry is constantly torn between what is right for the world and what is right for his family, and when pushed to it, he proves that he will go to great lengths for family.

Since the Al-Fayeeds have created a mess in Abbudin that an outsider objectively can view negatively, Barry being forced to do what is right for the country versus what is right for the family that he separated himself from for two decades is the greatest and most captivating element of the show. Four episodes in, the audience is still left wondering if Barry could be the drama's titular "Tyrant," and it's a great question to be left unanswered.

If that is not the payoff that "Tyrant" gives, then the show will likely end up being mediocre at best. But even with the problems in the early episodes, the drama has plenty of opportunities for greatness. It might not be the next "Fargo" or "Mad Men," but if it tightens up its storytelling and gives its characters more shades of grey, than it could prove to be something new and interesting -- whether a soap opera or not -- on the TV landscape.

"Tyrant" premieres Tuesday (June 24) at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
Photo/Video credit: FX