New Fox TV series Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern Dallas?

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern Dallas, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?

It’s easy to imagine the pitch for new US drama Tyrant. “It’s The Godfather in the Middle East. Our hero is Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed, a California paediatrician with a dark secret – he’s the youngest son of a Middle Eastern dictator. Bassam is estranged from his family but returns home with his American wife and two children for a wedding and just like that, Michael Corleone-style, they drag him back in… Whaddya think?”

Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern Dallas? Improbably, yes. Tyrant is one of the most hotly anticipated new dramas of the year, having been the subject of a fierce cable bidding war. Fox won and it will screen next month.

It’s easy to see why Tyrant attracted so much attention. The early scripts were by Gideon Raff, the Israeli writer behind the acclaimed Prisoners of War, aka the drama that formed the basis for Homeland. The running of the show was to be handled by Howard Gordon, co-creator of Homeland and former show-runner on 24. None other than two-time Oscar winner Ang Lee agreed to direct the pilot.

A Lee-directed Tyrant might have been a thing of beauty. Sadly, we’ll never know because after serving on the 2013 Cannes Jury the famous perfectionist quit the project. A piece in The Hollywood Reporter suggested he felt the demands of television and of a show this complex were too much to handle.

British director David Yates stepped in for the pilot but the production ran into more trouble. The writing team were replaced. Raff quit. Substantial reshoots were ordered, the production moved from Morocco to Israel and then, following events in Gaza, to Turkey. In April, Gordon had to meet with Middle Eastern policy experts to reassure them Tyrant was not guilty of stereotyping or Islamophobia.

There were two further fundamental flaws. The lead role of Bassam went not to a Middle Eastern actor but to white British actor Adam Rayner. In order to make his casting acceptable the show creators gave him a white British mother while insisting that he had been cast because of his resemblance to Ashraf Barhom, the Israeli Arab actor playing his brother Jamal. Neither explanation did much to convince sceptics.

“I agreed to play the role because you’d be crazy not to in my position,” says Rayner from the set in Istanbul. “He’s a man who loves his family but is taking them into a potential war zone. There’s so much conflict.”

Jennifer Finnegan, Adam Rayner and Moran Atias in ‘Tyrant’ Jennifer Finnegan, Adam Rayner and Moran Atias in ‘Tyrant’
The second issue was around subtitles – or the lack thereof. As multiple US critics pointed out, the decision to have the family speak English would have been standard 10 years ago but in these days of highly successful partially subtitled dramas like The Americans and The Bridge (both of which also air on FX in the US) it made the show seem clunky and dated.

“In shows like The Americans where it’s really about the collision with Russia and America at a certain point in time, the language is used dramatically,” Gordon said during the Television Critics Association Tour in LA. “It was something we talked about doing at an early point and I thought then that we’d have a lot more Arabic spoken but we couldn’t find places to separate organically. I do think unfortunately that it’s a bit of a loss.”

Tyrant arrived on FX to mixed reviews. “It’s about time American TV had a complex, well-drawn drama about the Middle East. This is not that show,” wrote Time while The New York Times criticised it for over-simplifying to the point where “it becomes too obvious where the story is headed and what people will do next.”

Gordon remains bullish. “This is really a show about the law of unintended consequences,” he said. “It is as much about the failings of American intervention in that part of the world as it is about power and the relationships between fathers and sons and brothers.”

The pilot of Tyrant, which veers between offensively bland and blandly offensive, isn’t the worst I’ve ever watched but nor is it good. Rayner is not nearly charismatic enough as the conflicted Bassam and the Godfather-style plot lacks impact. Worse is the treatment of female characters, who exist solely to be raped, threatened or reduced to nameless ciphers. Gordon has been swift to deny this, stressing: “The women do have names and what happens is important to the rest of the series. The trauma isn’t minimised or dismissed or used as an attempt to sensationalise a gross act. The chickens do come home to roost.”

There are occasionally hints of another, subtler show trying to break free. The early scenes contrasting the opulence of life in the ruling family and the reality of their regime are nicely done. Alice Krige has fun as autocratic matriarch Amira and some of the parallels with Syria (which Raff said was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote the initial scripts) are interesting. But The Honourable Woman, this is not.

‘Tyrant’ starts on 12 September at 9pm on Fox

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album