I don’t want to say too much about FX’s new drama, Tyrant, which premieres tonight, except so strongly recommend that you watch. Reviewing a drama pilot is like reviewing the first 10 minutes of a movie, i.e., the part that lays out the premise, only in the case of an episodic series, it also means giving the entire first episode away.
But I will say this: It has some problems, and some of television critics are taking pains to highlight them, but keep in mind that the Breaking Bad pilot had some problems, too, and some critics had no problem trashing it, either. Most of what determines if your series is good or not is what the showrunners (in this case, Homeland’s Howard Gordon) do with the premise over the course of the early episodes. For instance, I thought AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire had a great pilot, but subsequent episodes have squandered away all its goodwill. Likewise, Penny Dreadful has suffered since its opening episode.
Tyrant has more potential, and that has a lot to do with the simple yet brilliant concept: It’s The Godfather set in a fictional Middle-Eastern country. There’s a Vito, there’s a Sonny, and there’s a Michael Corleone, only here instead of the Mafia, it’s the son of a dictator in a Syria-like country who escaped to the United States for twenty years, became a pediatrician, married a blonde American, and had two kids (who are now surly teenagers). When he finally gets the nerve to go back home for a wedding (The Godfather!), he’s reluctantly pulled back into the family business.
There are some things that need to be worked out in the series, for sure. It potentially has a Dana Brody problem, the American family isn’t fleshed out particularly well yet, and the Sonny Corleone character is right on the cusp between convincingly maniacal and cartoonish (that character gets better in subsequent episodes). The lead Michael Corleone-type character (Adam Rayner) is also too stiff for much of the pilot, but that has a lot to do with David Yates’ (Harry Potter) restrained style of directing.
The ingredients to make a engaging, addictive series are there, however. There’s the Godfather framework; people within the country wanting to overthrow the dictatorship; a loose cannon in control of the whole mess; and an interesting political tension between what level of violence is needed to keep a dictatorship in power, and how much is too much, leading to riots or an overthrow of the government. Justin Kirk plays an American ambassador; and the media’s perspective comes from a childhood friend of Barry, who will likely act as the voice of reason as Barry gets sucked further into his corrupt political family. There’s also plenty of room to maneuver in the main character, who begins the series as a mild-mannered doctor working in America who wants nothing to do with his family, and who could eventually become — in three or four or five seasons — an Ozymandias-like ruler.
Of course, Howard Gordon has an excellent track record when it comes to first seasons (see, e.g., Homeland, 24), but he tends to run off the rails in subsequent seasons. However, here he doesn’t have to abide by the 22-episode structure of Fox (or the framing device), nor does he have to give into the demands of Showtime executives, who insisted he keep Nicholas Brody around well past his expiration date. FX gives showrunners all the freedom they need, and when it comes to drama, the network hasn’t let us down yet. It may eventually do so, but I don’t think it’ll be because of Tyrant.