The Best Plot in TV's 'Tyrant' Is Behind the Scenes

And why haven’t they mentioned Jews and Israel, moans Haaretz TV critic.

This is going to be a decisive week for the fate of “Tyrant,” both as a TV series and for the pivotal character in it. The tenth and final episode of the series’ first – and so far, only – season, commissioned by FX network, was released in the U.S. this past Tuesday.

In Israel, Yes subscribers will have a chance to see it on Yes Oh tonight, provided events in the Middle East do not create havoc with programming schedules. Those of you who are eager to know which of the two main male characters continues to carry the heavy crown of tyrannical thorns on his head, the 10th episode, “Gone Fishing”, is on Yes VOD already, since yesterday, and will stay there for two more weeks.

For the uninitiated among you, “Tyrant” is the brainchild of the Israeli TV writer and producer Gideon Raff (who originated the Israeli action-suspense-espionage series “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War), remade into the successful American series “Homeland”). He came up with the premise for “Tyrant” and wrote the pilot, shot in Morocco. It sort of capitalized on the success of “Homeland,” combined with the fearful fascination of the Western (i.e. American) audience with matters Middle Eastern (i.e., Muslim), and implications for the world order (i.e., terror, human rights, women’s rights, and so on), as well as more mundane matters like the price of oil.

Israeli input in a series in which the plots, sub-plots and counter-plots take place in the Middle East created ambivalent expectations in viewers and reviewers. The latter wondered about the ability (and/or will) of an Israeli-Jewish writer to be “fair,” whatever that may mean, to Middle Eastern Muslim characters and their fates and fortunes, given the ongoing, seemingly endless, festering and periodically violently erupting Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On top of that, following the massive anti-Islamic current following 9/11, and America’s bloody and ineffectual involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Israel and Palestine, the reviewers applied a politically ultra-correct standard when weighing the pros and cons of the series as a piece of art and/or entertainment.

For instance, they were openly hostile to the fact that a British actor, Adam Rayner, (and not an Arab actor) was cast as Bassam al-Fayeed, the second son of Khaled al-Fayeed, the original 
tyrannical ruler of the fictional Middle Eastern state of Abbudin, who dies by the end of the first episode. In that episode, in which Bassam, who ran away from his homeland and family 20 years earlier and built a new and “Western” life as a pediatrician in Pasadena, California, returns reluctantly for a family wedding (with a blonde American wife and typical American teenage children) and is drawn into local events and has to stay. The reviewers judged Rayner’s performance “lackluster” and “boring.”

On the other hand, the Palestinian-Israeli Ashraf Barhom’s portrayal of the elder son, Jamal, who assumes the tyrannical mantle, was widely praised. The character, though, was seen as a stereotypical caricature of a homicidal, sexually-deprived Middle Eastern ruler, like those the U.S. has tried again and again to rid the world of. Few noticed the striking physical resemblance between Rayner and Barhom.

The analogy between recent current events and various motifs, characters and story lines in “Tyrant” were very thinly veiled (think Saddam Hussein’s bloodthirsty sons, or Hafez al-Assad’s ophthalmologist son, Syria’s current and ruthless president, Bashar). But American reviewers have been much more concerned with the way women in the series are portrayed, seemingly – according to them – as sexual pawns for the Middle Eastern males (especially the clearly kinky Jamal), which allows for presenting ample pounds of (naked female, and some male) flesh. In that respect they were hardly fair, as all the women in the series – especially Israeli actress Moran Atias, who plays Jamal’s wily wife, and Jennifer Finnigan, as Bassam’s American wife – can very well fend for themselves.

The most interesting story line of “Tyrant” was, and is, not in the series’ premise and plot itself, but in what 
happened, and is still happening, behind the scenes. Even before the first episode was released, Gideon Raff had left the production team due to “creative differences of opinion” (he retains the “executive producer” title) and the show is being run by Howard Gordon. Following the pilot shot in Morocco, the production pitched its tents in Kfar Sava, Israel and invested in building a huge local set. The whole thing was lauded as a major coup for the local movie and TV industry.

As a self-centered Israeli viewer, I watched the show mildly offended that in all nine action-packed episodes so far (with the American diplomat, played by Justin Kirk, trying to mastermind a coup with the CIA’s clandestine involvement), there was not even one mention of Israel, Palestine, Jews, the Mossad or Zionism. And by the way, in this fictional Middle East, not even a whiff of ISIS. But I should not have worried: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict knows how to insinuate itself into any TV plot. With the missiles from Gaza flying north, the “Tyrant” production team fled to Turkey, lot, plot and quarrel.

So, as of this writing, we don’t yet know who will be going fishing by the end of the final episode of the season: the current tyrant, Jamal, (assuming he survives) or his aspiring, well-meaning but flawed brother Bassam (ditto). And more important: Nobody knows whether the series itself will survive for another season.

That will be decided not by the people of the fictional Abbudin, nor by the real-life producers of the series, who will have to conclude the season open ended, if they know what’s good for them. The real tyrant who rules the real TV land is the ratings: “Tyrant” started with 2.1 million viewers for episode 1 (.61 million viewers in the all-important 18-49 age group), and nine weeks later it garnered 1.446 million viewers (with .58 million in the 18-49 demographic). Those numbers can work both ways, and then some. In our day and age, even tyrants live by the numbers in the polls.