Summer 2014 is an ambitious season for cable channel FX. In addition to a followup season for the border noir The Bridge, FX launches two distinctly FXian dramas in Tyrant and The Strain. Tyrant in some ways reflects the long-gestating interests into character shades within Arab and Arab-American culture by 24 and Homeland co-creator and co-producer Howard Gordon. Gordon works alongside fellow co-writer/co-producer, and creator of Homeland‘s Israeli counterpart Prisoners of War, Gideon Raff. It is clear from the outside Tyrant posits both writers’ penchant toward “gritty” realism in a kind of post-globalist way (since the term post-9/11 seemingly resonates with less and less cultural impression each passing year).
Adam Rayner stars as Barry Al Fayeed, the half-White, half-Arab second son of a Middle Eastern Dictator to the fictitious country of “Abbudin”. Barry works as a California pediatrician that has both migrated and integrated into American life, including an independent (if not wholly underdeveloped) wife Molly (played as a kind of American signifier via Jennifer Finnegan’s unmistakably sunshine beach hair and lean athletic appearance) and two children Sammy and Emma. The family vacations to Barry’s homeland for the first time in twenty years (hence a first for everyone except Barry). The newness in scenery and foreign cultural experience experienced by Barry’s family functions as a stand-in reflection for American audiences. In other words, the pilot’s introductory template must perform certain narrative rituals to maximize broad audience identification despite FX’s tight-noosed masculine brand. These perfunctory steps mask the pilot’s thinly veiled premise of the prodigal half-son come home to accept/reject his fascist birthright.
If the half-white man’s burden is not uneasy to the casual viewer, FX’s stylistic misogynist mise en scene abrasively reminds viewers of real-world gender politics that plague both the foreign world of the characters and the newish role of women as objects in FX’s short historical canon. As a dramatic character introduction, Barry’s elder brother Jamal (and oligarchy heir) is first introduced in a horrifying scene in which he rapes a woman from behind in her bedroom while guards watch her husband and two young children from their home’s foyer. The sexual sounds of Jamal’s piggish grunting echo throughout the foyer as the youngest son sits in his papa’s lap. The entirety of the scene is emotionally shattering and only the first of three separate occurrences in the pilot where Jamal sexually abuses women (and viewers). Critics have recently voiced concerns regarding increasing uses of rape story lines on TV as a dramatic trope that arguably abuses the narrative instead of heightening it, favoring uncomfortable depiction over victim representation.
Jamal is a composite character unfortunately drawn from a number of real-world sons-of-dictators. His ruthlessness stems from an abusive father, hyper-privilege, and a culture bathed in unchecked hegemonic patriarchy. In one scene Jamal literally stops traffic in the city to provide Barry’s family uninterrupted passage from their private air travel to the family palace. Jamal spins around in a hot red sports car, and the brothers dress in Italian suits (again signifiers of enabling Western democracies) rather than robes and turbans. Jamal interrupts his own son’s bachelor party–a semi-homoeroitc men-only gathering inside a bathe house–and nearly beats to death a relative of someone who threatens the wedding. Barry intercedes if only to supply his pseudo-democratic nonviolence method (which fails when attempted in episode 2). Barry’s actions arguably save the victim’s life (as well as his family) but the long-term effects remain open. At the wedding party, after Jamal ceremoniously fires a clip full of rounds into the palace ceiling, he invites himself into the bride room. There he threatens his future daughter-in-law after witnessing her talking to another man at the wedding party. Jamal then asks “how many suitors” she has had prior to his son. When the bride pleads “none” Jamal forces himself on her from behind, and uses his middle finger to pluck her hymen to be certain. The disturbed male agency of this scene all too soon introduces thoughts of difference versus repetition. Jamal’s habitual abuse is no less disturbing and grossly promises FX’s (male?) viewers more indecency to come if they continue tuning in.
A third and final sexual assault scene transpires in the pilot’s climactic moments after the sudden passing of Barry and Jamal’s dictator father. Jamal flees the hospital in a relenting rampage. He twice slaps his attractive and perhaps psychologically traumatized wife in front of family and then flees in his sports car. In the next scene, a woman veiled in black accompanies Jamal’s ego-tragic joyride. Jamal gropes himself chauvinistically and then forces his wife to perform oral sex while he speeds dangerously around narrow hillside curves. In this case the third time’s the charm as Jamal’s wife bites his crotch and causes the hot rod to fly off the guardrail and down the mountainside. Her momentary agency does nothing to remedy the atrocities that beset all women in Jamal’s path prior, and the clear indication of his antagonistic role does not bode well for the future of female characters either. [This says nothing of Barry’s own “unleash the beast” moments in both his physical reaction to a disobedient son and the pilot’s “shocking” tell-tale flashback at episode’s end.] Thus in these terms, FX’s Tyrant fulfills its own provocation toward tyranny as well as a sense of self-entitlement to treat its characters as it will in the name of authenticity of cultural norms.