Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Tyrant

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Tuesdays at 10:00 PM on FX

It's tough to truly make a judgement on Tyrant after just one episode.  There's certainly potential for something interesting when you have a political drama set in the Middle East, created by some of the people who made Homeland.  (Early word says it's pretty mediocre though.)  The problem is that at every turn, the show smacks right into a giant wall of blandness.  It centers around Bassam "Barry" Al Fayeed, the son of a tyrannical leader of the fictional Abbudin, who left his home country 20 years ago to live in America.  Tyrant puts the politics on the backburner for the first 20 minutes, focusing on Barry's wife and kids.  This kind of slow-burning character building would be fine...if there was actually any character building.  But in those first scenes we don't learn much besides the fact that his wife is a wife, his daughter is a brat, and his son is a brat whose brattiness doesn't mesh well with his sister's brand of brattiness.

It doesn't get much better when the family travels to Abbudin to attend the wedding of Barry's nephew.  The half-sketched nature of the characters has nothing on this relatively nondescript country in the Middle East.  The impulse to shy away from using a real country is understandable, given the content that the show will be exploring, but it doesn't do a very good job of making Abbudin feel like an actual place.  It completely lacks any kind of texture, and aside from a reference or two to the nation's history and its relationship with other countries in the region, Abbudin might as well be California.  Compare that to the specificity with which another FX show, The Bridge, depicted the border between Juarez and El Paso, and Tyrant just comes off as Middle Eastern pastiche.

Nobody will mistake the pilot's script for being subtle either.  Almost every beat of the show feels like the writers making an assumption of what viewers want from their gritty dramas, but they either sap those elements of any kind of color or underline them with a bold pen.  We meet Barry's dad, but he's nothing more than a delivery system for run-of-the-mill daddy issues.  Barry's brother is a stock psychotic character, complete with a moment of sudden violence that's the show's most trite and perfunctory moment.  Throughout the episode, we get flashbacks of Barry's childhood in Abbudin, and the scenes might as well be shouting, "Dark past!" at the viewers.  The pilot's few interesting moments come from seeing how Barry fits into the world he left long ago, quickly flying into action to make a political decision that spares everyone of potential bloodshed.  Those intriguing tidbits, however, are few and far between.

Perhaps the biggest mistake made on the show's behalf is in trying to convince everyone that it's a serious drama.  There are some deliciously crazy beats that get hit in the last 10 minutes of the show, and if the writers can lean into that, then it could become something fun and pulpy.  Unfortunately, Tyrant doesn't seem aware of its own silliness, and by the end it comes back around to being brooding and morose.  It's going to have to get much better if audiences are going to take the show as seriously as it takes itself.

Grade: C

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