Tyrant eps 2 & 3

The opening credits sequence for Tyrant is beautiful. Gorgeous grey towers rising up slowly in a Game of Thrones style, against a misty, almost twilight-like palette, with credits written in English before briefly appearing in silvery, ethereal Arabic script, all soundtracked by haunting music: absolutely beautiful. And utterly ironic given the programme itself is so irredeemably ugly.

Episode 2 picks up where the pilot left off, with Barry/Bassam and family headed to the hospital to see psychotic Jamal after the assassination attempt on him failed. His injury is both life-threatening and mortifying – because everything about this show has to be as unpleasant as humanly possible – but sadly for the country, he survives. Happily(ish) for the oppressed residents of Abuddin, Barry/Bassam decides to stick around and show Jamal and everyone else in the country truth, justice and the Pasadena way because the politics of this show aren’t exactly subtle. This strategy isn’t entirely successful, however, since Barry/Bassam begins believing he’s a cross between Steve McGarrett and Ban Ki Moon, trying to be all action hero and ambassador for peace at the same time – with mixed results since, yes, he saves the lives of Jamal’s frankly cursed daughter-in-law (ep 1 raped, ep 2 kidnapped, ep 3 still Jamal’s daughter-in-law – has the poor girl not suffered enough?) and Jamal’s arch-enemy Ihab Rashid (for now), but he also helps facilitate the cold-blooded executions of three young boys (ep 2, accidentally) and the poor guy who simply could not take Jamal raping his wife any longer (ep 3, not so much).

Meanwhile, Barry/Bassam’s wife Psychiatrist Barbie continues not to care about any of this, and is only concerned about Barry/Bassam “making a connection” with his murdering maniac rapist of a brother because she is a moron. Jamal’s wife Leila is much more rounded and compelling as a character but, like the credits, she doesn’t have enough screen time to make up for the nihilistic nastiness of several of the characters and the plot itself. I mean Jamal is complicated, sure, but no matter what the reasons for it may be, he’s still an appalling excuse for a human being. And since Barry/Bassam is a good guy but in the most patronising, wet tv way possible (even if his eyes are pretty), nothing in Tyrant will ever end well for anyone remotely decent or likeable who isn’t either Barry/Bassam himself or his wife and kids. Which makes the show grimly depressing on a number of levels and means that, since there’s more than enough abject horror in the Middle East in the news at the moment without me seeking it out as “entertainment” as well, it’s goodbye to Tyrant from unpopcult, and good riddance.

Tyrant ep 1

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.