It seems like the events of September 11th, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring have caused art to imitate life-–in this case, in the form of dramatic television series. FX recently premiered its own addition to this emerging genre with its new series about the fictional Middle Eastern dictatorship of Abbudin, and the Al Fayeed family that rules it. Based on an amalgamation of Saddam’s Iraq and al-Assad’s Syria, Tyrant follows the familiar story of a messy succession, after the demise of an ailing dictator.
Visually, the show draws you in, though if you’ve spent anytime in the region, you will recognize many of the major landmarks all superimposed into one, impressive landscape. In terms of cast, some fit the bill, others are a stretch. But that’s not what is going to keep most viewers coming back. Similar to other popular shows along the lines of Game of Thrones, Homeland, and the Tudors, Tyrant amps up tried and true story lines with graphic depictions of sex and violence. Where Tyrant stands apart, however, is in its relevance to the contemporary reality of the region. For example, it takes Jamal Al-Fayeed-–the heir apparent-–5 minutes of screen time to completely shock and awe you (and when I say you I mean me) with his physical and sexual brutality. However, Tyrant is not simply looking to get a rise out of the audience from this stunningly scary performance by talented Arab Israeli actor, Ashraf Barhom. If you’ve read The Devil’s Double––the gruesome story of Uday Hussain’s body double and the horrors that he witnessed during his compulsory tenure–you’ll know that Jamal’s character is the real deal.
Putting aside the sensationalist aspects of the show for a moment, Tyrant manages quite deftly to touch upon almost every major theme plaguing the region today. From the fall of regional dictators and the ensuing chaos to the events and associated grievances of the Arab Spring; from foreign fighters and the potential blowback following their return from Syria to the ever-present specter of “infidels, Zionists and the Muslim Brotherhood,” this show’s got it all.
What it also has is a fair share of judgment and caricature. For example, what’s the deal with the American Embassy official John Tucker’s character? The guy is portrayed as being in the pocket of the regime, while lavishly soaking up the luxury that comes with it. That’s it? That is all the representation the U.S. is getting in the entire pilot? Is this what we are doing in Syria? Is this what we did in Libya?
Likewise, at another point in the series’ pilot, ailing King Khalid Al Fayeed says to his son Bassam, newly returned from his self-imposed exile and quiet life as a doctor in American: “After everything I’ve given the people, they are still not satisfied. They say they want freedom, freedom to do what? To kill each other?” This line, while giving viewers a vivid sense of how dictators perceive the sectarian and civil strife that replaces their iron rule, depicts a simplistic and rather un-compelling dichotomy between the authoritarian security state and the bloodlust-driven break-up of a country. Some may be tempted to cite the ISIS demolition of the Syrian-Iraqi border as a real-life example of this. But what about the missed opportunities to create inclusive governments to replace fallen dictators and to spur indigenous efforts from within to confront the radical threat posed by jihadists and other would-be terrorists? But that’s probably a little more that FX is trying to bite off.
For some, this series will be as attractive and addictive as 24 and Homeland. For others, it will hit too close to home in light of the events going on today in capitals across the region. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to watch how the show’s creators continue to blend fact and fiction, while still keeping viewers engaged in a pass-time that at the end of the day is meant to entertain.