Taking over Fargo's recently vacated timeslot, Gideon Raff's FX drama Tyrant settles in at Tuesday night with a premiere episode that reveals its potential, not to mention the amount of effort it took for this ambitious project to be made. While the first episode teases an intriguing new drama that will leave you wanting more, the episodes that follow don't quite satisfy. But there's hope...
Created by Gideon Raff and developed by Howard Gordon and Craig Wright, Tyrant stars Adam Rayner as Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed, a pediatrician, husband and father living in the U.S. who reluctantly takes his family -- wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and two teen kids Emma (Anne Winters) and Sammy (Noah Silver) -- back to his homeland, a fictional war-torn middle eastern country called Abbudin. There, we meet Barry's brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), a ruthless dictator-in-training, who's next in line to take over as President of Abbudin.
The reason for Barry's first return home in two decades is Jamal's son's wedding, and Barry worries that he somehow won't be able to return to the States after this trip. It's as if he knows that something will keep him there, and his fears aren't so far off base. As for the reason Barry doesn't want to return to Abbudin, that's presented to us through a series of flashbacks, which reveal a couple of key moments from Barry's youth. While his upbringing was privileged, being the second son of a ruthless dictator had its drawbacks, enough so that he ran away as a teenager and never returned home (until now). In the present day, Abbudin is seemingly at peace, though we soon discover that there's more brewing just under the surface of this country, and it's just a matter of time before it erupts. The premiere episode finds a way to keep Barry from returning home after the wedding, and from there we get to see his re-introduction to a life he wanted to leave behind.
There's an obvious vagueness to this fictional setting, which isn't tethered to any one Middle Eastern country's history or language. Religion is acknowledged, but isn't a main focus, and everyone speaks English (with accents), even in the flashbacks.
Directed by David Yates, the first episode of Tyrant sets the series up really well, walking us through the introduction with perfect pace, and closing out with a tension filled final act that will leave viewers intrigued enough to tune in for more. Unfortunately, the pacing drops off noticeably from there. Between Barry's return, his family's involvement in the trip, his brother's demonstrated aggression, the numerous conflicts that are introduced in the first episode, and the strife the country is dealing with, the series has a lot on its plate. We're also shown background information about the characters through flashbacks. Everything that's presented to us is interesting and some of it is building some great suspense, with more than a few disturbing, violent moments worked in to reveal the dark reality of the justice system in this country.
While much of what's introduced is interesting, the problem is that with each episode, it becomes more apparent that this show is juggling a lot of elements and not focusing enough attention on any one of them to allow us to become truly invested in these characters. My level of interest peaked at the end of the first episode, and while the episodes that followed maintained that interest for the most part, I could feel it dropping off by Episode 4.
There's a bright side to this situation, however, as Tyrant has all the elements of a great show. The plot is interesting, the characters are compelling, and the cast is great. I'm especially interested in seeing the evolution of Barry's character as he spends more time in his homeland and surrounded by the life he abandoned, as there are hints early on that this world doesn't bring out his best side. We're left wanting to know more about that, which is a good thing. But the episodes that follow don't deliver as much on that promising aspect of the plot as I would have hoped.
Tyrant's biggest challenge to overcome may be its lack of momentum, despite how much transpires in the first few episodes. While the pacing issue is too noticeable to ignore, it's a fixable issue if Tyrant can get the ratio of background information, character development and plot right, which may mean sidelining some plots whole others are developed. Whether or not Tyrant finds the right pacing throughout the rest of its first season remains to be seen. What is laid out for us in these first few episodes is interesting enough to keep watching in the hopes that it will find its footing sooner rather than later.
Tyrant premieres Tuesday, June 24 at 10:00 p.m. ET on FX.