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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’

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