Were I to believe what is written in the papers, I should have been dead a long time ago. As reported by Time Magazine, a new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association “assessed risk of early death from three sedentary behaviors: TV watching, computer time and driving time. They didn’t find any associations with computer time and driving, but the risk for death was two times higher for participants who watched three or more hours of TV at a time.”
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Well, I’m still alive (although not kicking) and watch TV three and more hours at a time at the service of our readers, which is more than one can say about many minor and some major characters in the new U.S. TV series “Tyrant.” The 10-episode series is created by Gideon Raff (who fathered the Israeli program “Prisoners of War” (“Hatufim”), which was remade in America as “Homeland”), produced by FX to the tune of more than $30 million, and cowritten and “run” by Howard Gordon of “24” fame. The pilot was shot in Morocco, but the series itself was filmed mainly in Kfar Sava, making it Israel’s largest TV production to date.
The series premiered in the United States on June 24 with solid ratings (2.1 million viewers for its first airing) but a very mixed critical reception (“mixed” is usually a euphemism for “bad, but not hopeless yet”). It tells the story of Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed, a California-based pediatrician who, 20 years earlier, had exiled himself from his homeland – the war-torn, fictional country of Abbudin, somewhere in the Middle East.
Barry’s self-imposed exile was an effort to distance himself not only from political strife, but also from the oppressive surroundings of his nuclear family, ruled with an iron hand by his ruthless father Khaled Al Fayeed, the arch-tyrant of Abbudin [spoiler alert] who dies by the end of the first episode, surprisingly enough, due to a stroke and not from being assassinated. Or watching too much TV.
Bassam-Barry (let’s stick with Barry), who had built a new life for himself on the West Coast with an all-American family (a very blonde wife, Molly, and rebellious teenage son and daughter) was running not only from his family and his home, but also from his own past – or rather his own former self. The first episode’s plot – Barry takes his family, reluctantly, to his homeland, to attend the wedding of his nephew – is interspersed with flashbacks from Barry’s childhood, especially one violent scene in which his father, then still a tyrant in the making, grooms his first-born son, Jamal, to follow in his bloody footsteps, under Barry’s small-kid impressionable eyes.
Those flashbacks seem to be the key to the series, which is a mix between a family-affair drama in violent surroundings (think “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos”) with an action-packed political plot (“24,” “Homeland”), the backdrop being the playing fields of the Arab Spring: Abbudin is supposed to be an amalgam of Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
The fact that Barry is an MD brings to mind another doctor by profession – the Syrian ophthalmologist Bashar Assad, the “Westernized” son of a Middle Eastern tyrant who turned out to be, contrary to popular expectations (based more on wishful thinking than anything else), a spitting image of his late father, Hafez.
Which raises a loaded question: Is there something innate to the Muslim-Arab world in general, and the Middle East in particular, that turns men and women of goodwill into bloodthirsty monsters, that is inoculated, as it were, against Western-style democratic values?
More specifically to “Tyrant,” the series’ premise hinges on the question of whether Barry – who has the tyrant’s mantle thrust upon him, against his will – can remain the same nice guy he seems to be in the opening scene, even when he is being given so much power to wield, or will it corrupt him? And if it does, will it be due to the place and time, or some genetic violent familial streak that still lurks inside him – as is hinted at in the flashback scene, perhaps the only surprising development in episode one.
What seemed to rub U.S. reviewers the wrong way is based – in my humble Israeli opinion – more on certain expectations and political-correctness demands than on the first episode itself. In keeping with the bon ton of wariness of being accused of Orientalism, and the liberal backlash after the post 9/11 demonization of the Muslim and Arab worlds in general, the reviewers accused the series of “stereotyping” the characters (all of them, not just the Arabs), and of offending the Arab-Muslim world by presenting the people and the Middle East as being violent, bloodthirsty and brutally abusive toward women: Jamal (played by the Israeli-Arab actor Ashraf Barhom) is seen raping one woman twice, striking his estranged wife (Israeli actress Moran Atias) – after she had delivered the first blow – once, and forcing himself on his daughter-in-law (a scene spared viewers in Israel, where the series runs on YES Oh on Saturday nights, and on YES VOD).
The fact that the series originated with the Israeli Raff did not assuage suspicions of bias, even if he is not heavily involved in the show now, due to artistic differences with executive producer Howard Gordon.
On top of that, the producers were taken to task for casting English actor Adam Rayner in the lead role of Barry – on the grounds that he is not a “bankable” star, nor of Arab origin (as if an actor’s birthplace should be a factor in assessing them), and for delivering a lackluster performance.
Were I to believe what is written in the papers, I would not have watched the series at all. As it is, following the first episode, I say, “Let’s see what goes on, and how the stereotypes assume flesh and blood. Believe you me, it’s the Middle East, things look different from here.”
Having checked my view against those of other reviewers, I have come to the conclusion that someone can be too politically correct. But let’s withhold the verdict just yet. Anyway, it’s just another TV series, not a policy paper.