The series follows Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the younger son of a Middle East dictator who has lived in the United States for 20 years and works as an emotionally constipated Los Angeles pediatrician who is reluctant to share his inner emotional strife – and damaged, dark childhood – with his wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan, “Better With You”).
Barry returns to his homeland, the fictional Abbudin, for his nephew’s wedding, bringing Molly and his two teenage children with him.
Flashbacks throughout the premiere episode offer some background on Barry and his older brother, the brutal and moody rapist Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), who is next-in-line for the presidency of Abbudin should something happen to their dictator dad.
In addition to the cultural tug-of-war Barry feels between his American life and his Abbudin upbringing, “Tyrant” sets up the culture clash for his family, who are accustomed to their American ways and find themselves as fish-out-of-water in a new country.
The culture depicted in Abbudin seems to be a mix of several Middle Eastern countries. The country is billed as hugely wealth (a la Saudi Arabia) but other elements make it seem closer to Libya.
The pilot was written by Gideon Raff, who created the Israeli series that Showtime’s “Homeland” is based on (Mr. Raff is also a consultant on the American “Homeland”). But Mr. Raff left “Tyrant” after the pilot over creative differences, according to a Hollywood Reporter story. “Tyrant” is now run by Howard Gordon, long-time showrunner of “24.”
Evidently there were differences over the direction of “Tyrant,” and the question of what the show will be after the pilot – A family drama? A political thriller? A little of both? – hangs over this first episode. That’s why there’s a hesitance to sing the show’s praises too loudly; it could all come crashing down as it goes along.
But through the first four episodes, “Tyrant” holds up pretty well.
The subsequent three episodes made available for review never quite match the urgency of the pilot but the writers balance the personal stories of Barry’s immediate family with the political drama of what’s essentially Abbudin’s royal court once Barry decides to stay and help govern his homeland.
The American family is used as a hook to draw American viewers in -- actor Justin Kirk (“Weeds”) also shows up as a representative of the American embassy in Abbudin – but the focus shifts sharply to Abbudin’s internal political strife in episodes that deal with homegrown terrorists and the 20-year anniversary of a gas attack by the country’s ruler that killed 20,000 citizens.
Whether American viewers are willing to stick with “Tyrant,” particularly given the depressing tone of news coming out of the Middle East these days, remains an open question. But in its early episodes, “Tyrant” is as engaging when it focuses on family drama as when it veers more in the direction of taut, serialized, political thriller.