After a good battering of bad press and controversy, FX's drama about the dictatorial family running a fictitious Arabic country has premiered. The best/worst news is that for a show that seeks to humanize the people behind the power, Tyrant actually makes it easier just not to give a fuck. That's not quite right: The sense of moral inequity here is so large that it immediately fills you up and beings to evaporate out of your skin. It has just been so hard for these dictators, personally. There is so much unlove in the palace.
Everyone was concerned that Tyrant would be horrible to the lived reality of Arab people in a vast swath of countries around the world. That even its end goal, an American production dramatizing the geopolitics of a region we helped ruin, was a monstrous folly. And, truly, it is. But the scale of the sin is tricky—folding whole histories into the thought that a patrician general-president knows better than the rabble, who agitate in "the square" all day for freedom. Meanwhile! That same president and his inexplicably British wife miss their youngest son who never visits.
Almost no one speaks but royalty. The only register is angst. Jamal, formerly favored eldest son, is savage and inpolitic and violent and a rapist. "Jamal is broken," his brother Bassam/"Barry" says, after Jamal assaults his new daughter-in-law at her wedding and then after a flashback about Jamal, as a child, being made to watch the suppression of his father's rivals. This is psychologically crude, even audacious—Sergei Eisenstein remaking Brothers & Sisters. The past keeps slivering into the present. We are all children still. We are our parents.
Tyrant so has not fused the two sides of itself that it's dizzying, even disgusting. But some other parts of it work, in a red meat sort of way and if you're starving. With the full exhilaration of my shame, I can admit that I am loving the domestic drama, which at this stage is larval and hydratic and goes there and then there, too. It has the thrall of possibility. How will the Americans survive in Arabia???
If nothing else, by the finale, I hope Barry will be so corrupted by running Abbudin that he'll be forced to choose between the presidency and his son, like Abraham and Isaac, except God in this case is assumptive autocracy. When Barry slapped Sammy—twice—I said "goddamn" out loud to myself, alone. The show is full of violences like this.
PLUS: Secret gay teen romances (to get ALL THE BLOGGERS GOING). Wives crying single tears. That sullen daughter who is already my favorite because she did some Googling and knows she's in a show called Tyrant.
Justin Kirk! Jordana Spiro!
Do we all remember when Jordana Spiro was on My Boys for seasons and seasons until the show actually started to get some solid critical notices from the establishment? Craig Wright, who helped Howard Gordon develop Tyrant, before all of this actually created Dirty Sexy Money back in 2007, which had maybe the best English-language TV pilot in history or the universe. Now they're working together on this show! This show.
Building to the premiere there has been a thought, trumpeted, that today we live in a post-racial world and so maybe making a prestige cable drama about Arab dictators is actually ambiguous; that this way, rare in American media, we would for once see their whole wide world for what it is.
[Images via FX]