Dr Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed is a successful paediatrician living in America with his blonde doctor (psychiatrist, I think) wife, his sassy teenage kids and his Stars and Stripes on the lawn. But Dr Barry’s ostensibly perfect life is haunted by the other life he left behind: his father is the ruthless leader of the (fictional) Middle Eastern country of Abuddin, his brother is the heir apparent and Barry wants little to do with them or their oppressive regime.
It does seem somewhat bizarre, then, that, Barry agrees to go back to the bosom of his Abuddin family for his nephew’s wedding, especially when the news is apparently full of the protests and crackdowns and political turmoil there. However, without Dr Barry’s wedding trip, there’s no series, so let’s just table that particular implausibility for now – there’s plenty of other stuff to criticise instead, don’t worry.
Anyway, off we go with Barry, Mrs Barry and the Junior Barrys to the Abuddin Presidential Palace, the Middle East’s answer to Southfork. I assume this show was originally pitched as having something important and interesting to say about the Arab Spring, especially in light of what’s happened since then, and there undoubtedly is an important and interesting show to be made about that but, on the basis of this episode, Tyrant is not that show. Tyrant is basically Dallas with the Al-Fayeeds as a Middle Eastern version of the Ewings; well, most of the Al-Fayeeds – bafflingly, Barry is played by Adam Rayner, a half-British, half-American, full not-Middle Eastern chap, who I’m sure is a perfectly adequate actor but looks completely unrelated to the rest of his fictional family. As Daniel Fienberg points out, it’s not as if there is a shortage of great Middle Eastern actors (a number of them are in the supporting cast) so the decision not to cast one in a rare leading role on US tv is both disappointing and odd.
Casting aside, though, as Jed will confirm, I’ve been itching to slate Tyrant ever since I heard its premise. I’ve been waiting to pounce on it for any insulting stereotypes or inherent racism or anything that reminded me of effing Homeland. Surprisingly, though – apart from Barry’s casting – I didn’t really have an issue with how race was handled in the pilot (with the caveat that obviously there’s still plenty of time for the show to mess that up later). Which is not to say I liked Tyrant, but more that I disliked its gender politics a lot more than its race ones.
For a start, Barry’s wife seems to be a total idiot. She’s not only completely unperturbed by the idea of visiting this country in turmoil and exposing her kids to whatever demons haunt her hubby, she’s the idea’s biggest cheerleader and actually takes Barry to task when his lack of enthusiasm for the trip rubs off on his teenage daughter (the only sensible one in the family) – “Honey, you do realise Emma’s manifesting your negativity?” Um, yes, Honey, because Emma doesn’t have candy floss for brains.
All this Psychiatrist Barbie is interested in is getting Dr Barry to talk to her and his father about what’s bothering him. When the poor guy does talk to her however, she doesn’t actually listen to a word he’s saying; when he tells her Jamal is a violent and possibly homicidal lunatic, her reaction is not “OMG, we’re flying out of here and taking our kids with us right now”, it’s “I’m so pleased you told me, now what you need to do is talk to your father about it because…. it’s left you joyless.” Joyless?! Never mind “joyless,” how about “in close proximity to a crazy person with access to guns, unlimited power and your kids?” What Dr Barry needs isn’t to talk to anybody, lady, it’s to get the lot of you the hell out of Dodge.
The rest of the female characters fare even worse. When we first meet Jamal, he’s just finished sexually assaulting (we don’t see it, but it’s heavily implied) an unwilling mistress. So we know he’s a bad guy. Later on, we see him violently (and nakedly) physically assault a male political frenemy – so we’re absolutely sure he’s a bad guy. Do we really then need to see him rape another two women, in different, but equally graphic, ways in the same episode? Using women and sexual violence repeatedly and unnecessarily like this is cheap, it’s nasty, and it adds nothing to the show beyond a very bad taste in the mouth. And since there wasn’t anything I liked enough about Tyrant to offset that, that’s a real problem.
Sigh. Since I’m mildly interested in where the rest of the plot goes from here, I’ll give Tyrant another episode at least, but if it doesn’t start presenting some of its female characters as people with agency and personality instead of victims or vacuums I won’t be sticking with it very long.
If there’s one thing that just about everyone making upmarket TV shows has mastered, it’s the art of the cold open, and this one is a cracker: a normal day in Mapelton, a small town in America, which without warning becomes the day of the Sudden Departure, a quasi-Rapture during which 2% of the world’s population, we will subsequently learn, simply disappears from the face of the planet. Three years on, the event remains unexplained, and while the survivors have to get on with living, they do so in a society which still has that void at its heart.
There really isn’t much plot to speak of this week: the Mapleton chief of police, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the main character; his daughter is somewhat adrift, checking in at one point on a Less Than Zero-esque party where teenagers – including Parker and Posey, or whatever they were called, from Desperate Housewives! – are having listless fun; dogs get shot, which I’m all for. Matters are complicated by the ever-present Guilty Remnant, a cult made up of white-clad non-speaking chain-smokers, whose endgame remains unclear but who are, for now, the minority, the enemy, in whatever allegory is being played out here. (They come under a sustained and violent attack from the townspeople at a Sudden Departure memorial event, in one of the best sequences in the episode. Mind you, they shouldn’t go around staring at people in that creepy way.)
The Leftovers is oddly compelling, but it’s not flawless: for one thing, it’s a bit too long and windy. Yes, I know that I’ve been banging on for years about the Golden Age of TV, how visionary writers and directors have the opportunity to indulge themselves creatively as they would were they making movies, etc. etc., but I’d be lying if I said that my heart leapt with joy when I saw the running time of this episode, or that I didn’t occasionally yearn for the crispness and snarkiness of a dumb-but-fun procedural. (I gather that next week’s episode is a little shorter.) Look, guys, if I wanted to see something that lasts as long as a film I would go and see a film.
But there’s a lot going for it as well: once you get used to the fact that the show isn’t going to be flinging plot twists at you every two minutes, it’s easy to settle into its beguiling rhythms. And it’s, paradoxically, the absence of any real curiosity about the reason why the Sudden Departure took place which gives The Leftovers its weird strength: the show has the unsteady pulse of a world which is suffering from a sense of dislocation which no-one can explain, or anticipates being able to. This doesn’t seem to be a show about solving a mystery: it’s a show about how people react to the tragic consequences of that mystery, and that’s what’ll bring me back next week at least.
As CJ said yesterday, things are starting to get a little busier round here. On top of Haven, Legends, and The Strain, HBO’s ten-parter The Leftovers starts its UK run this evening on Sky Atlantic at 9pm. It’s another high concept: three years before the first episode, 2% or the population of the world disappeared for unexplained reasons, and the show focusses on the people left behind in a small town in the state of New York. The Leftovers was co-created by Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel on which the show is based. Both also exec produce, Lindelof had a hand in writing most of the episodes, and Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston, and Amy Brenneman are in the cast.
It attracted mixed reviews, to be sure, but many of the critics who liked the first episode really liked it and kept on liking it, and HBO has renewed it for a second season (standard HBO practice, but still welcome). Most importantly of all, viewing figures have stayed at more or less the same level throughout, suggesting very strongly that The Leftovers has found and kept an audience, albeit a “select” one. So all of that, plus the Lindelof factor, means that Unpopcult is in: weekly reviews, starting tonight.
And coming soon: oh, all the usual stuff, plus Gotham, The Knick, and The Flash. And we’re only about three weeks away from the return of The Blacklist…
The steady trickle of tv turns into a deluge this week: Jed will be along to talk about The Leftovers tomorrow but, in the meantime, here’s my contribution to the week’s PSA pot….
First up, Haven returns to Syfy UK at 9pm tomorrow (Tuesday) for the “first part” of its fifth and final season. Except that it’s one of those “final” seasons which is split into two halves (each strangely enough the length of a normal season) and shown in different years. *Rolls eyes*
Regardless, whether we’re calling it two seasons or one, I’m delighted we’re getting new episodes at all – after a pretty ropey first season, Haven has turned into something special and ending it forever on last season’s cliffhanger would have been UNACCEPTABLE. Especially since that season was fantastic, Audrey and Nathan make a gorgeous (if insanely star-crossed) ship and Duke, quite frankly, RULES. We won’t be doing weekly reviews, but comments about the show are, as always, welcome on this thread. (Especially if they involve lots of yelling at Evil Audrey.)
From a returning favourite to two newbies then, Wednesday night at 10pm brings with it the UK debuts of both Legends (on Sky 1) and The Strain (on Watch). Legends revolves around some undercover spy-related shenanigans which, yes, I know, but its USP is that the undercover spy in question is Sean Bean. Which, frankly, is all I need to know. Action tv afficionados may be attracted by the involvement of Howard “24 and Homeland” Gordon, certain viewers’ interest may be piqued by the presence of Ali Larter or Amber Valletta…..whatevs. It’s Ned Stark: Secret Agent, so count me in for now, anyway. I’ll review the first episode and we’ll see where we go from there.
Which brings me to The Strain, created by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, with Carlton “not Damon Lindelof but the other Lost guy” Cuse taking on showrunner duties. It’s about a nasty virus turning folk into vampires and threatening humanity as we know it so if you’re not cool with a) Hazmat suits, b) vampires or c) very scary telly, it’s maybe not for you but reviews have been good, it’s been renewed for a second season and I like a spot of the undead with my evening cuppa so I’m on review duties for ep 1 at least. Even if it means watching from behind the sofa and sleeping with all the lights on afterwards.
‘Blackbird’ – a potent brew of sex and race – was perhaps the best episode of the season so far, apart from ‘Fight’. The point, driven home over and over again, is just how dysfunctional these people are. Bill has now managed to talk his way out of yet another job, this time by running to an African-American journalist to lie about his study, hoping that he can leverage that into the study continuing at Buell Green, despite Dr Hendricks’s (reasonable) concerns about medical studies of “Negroes” carried out by white doctors with their eyes on a bigger prize. And he and Ginny kiss, this being the last barrier between the two of them, reminding us that when all’s said and done he’s cheating on his wife. If he’s supposed to be a hero, he’s a rum one.
Ginny continues to provide solace to DePaul – and some of their scenes together this week are extraordinarily touching – but acknowledges that De Paul isn’t actually all that nice, meaning that two of the people she’s drawn to (DePaul and Bill) are pretty unpleasant, and really only redeemed by her love for them. And she has a “beau”, who Bill only finds about accidentally. Libby, meantime, continues her borderline obsessive interest in the private life of Coral, following it to a frankly demented extreme when she chucks her baby into the car and follows Coral home, only to discover that the man she thought was Coral’s boyfriend is actually her brother. (This is treated as a revelation, but I kind of thought that we knew that already…? Maybe not.)
And on top of all that, the ongoing story of Betty and Gene reached the inevitable endpoint, when he found out the truth about Betty and Helen. It’s still not clear how their arc links into the overarching plot of the show any more, now that Betty isn’t looking for fertility treatment, and Gene isn’t funding Bill’s studies, but from a dramatic point of view, it’s great still having them around. The point, of course, might simply be that forcing people into sexual straitjackets leads to profound unhappiness, a point which might seem trite, but which in fact remains relevant today – if not quite as pressing as it was at the time of Masters of Sex – with even fairly standard sexual practices between consenting adults still treated as shameful, sinful, curable, even ideologically unsound. On sex and race, we still have a ways to go.
‘Old Dog, New Tricks’ was written by Chris Colfer, whose two favourite things are, apparently, dogs and old people. Well, they aren’t mine, and an episode which features both heavily probably isn’t going to endear itself to me. Rachel is still in the ongoing process of taking leave of her senses, and decides that she needs a cause (homeless doggies) and a publicist (Santana, who of course hated her until a couple of weeks ago) to improve her image. Sam adopts one of the dogs without telling Mercedes, and it rips their place up. Lolz. Meantime Kurt stumbles into playing the lead in a performance of Peter Pan being put on by – and in – a home for retired performers. As part of that he tries to reconcile a resident of the home (June Squibb) and her estranged daughter (an underused Melinda McGraw). Hugging and learning ensue. Well done to Colfer for taking a greater creative role in his show, and well done to the producers for letting him – this wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t work for me.
The music was OK, with ‘Werewolves Of London’ and ‘Lucky Star’ the highlights. Kurt’s ‘Memory’ was excellent, of course; ‘I Melt With You’ and ‘Take Me Home Tonight’ were passable.
And phew. After a very dicey start to the season, this was Steven Moffat once again close to his barnstorming best; mining pathos, humour and terror from everyday life, with a light dusting of time travel on top. I’m sure there were plot holes (if you look hard enough for them) and it was a bit wordy in parts – I think the pre-credits sequence would have been even more effective if had happened in silence instead of with the Doctor yammering through it, and I would have cut some more of his dialogue from the rest of the ep as well. But these are small quibbles. “Listen” was simultaneously touching and terrifying and I loved it.