'Tyrant' Bounces Back for an Improved Second Season

The turbulent Middle East state of Abuddin returns to TV for another season, in which tense ties in the ruling family are set to keep us glued to the screen.

Michael Handelzalts
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Ruthless Jamal (Ashraf Barhom, left) throws his younger brother Bassam (Adam Rayner) into prison for plotting a coup against him, in 'Tyrant.'
Ruthless Jamal (Ashraf Barhom, left) throws his younger brother Bassam (Adam Rayner) into prison for plotting a coup against him, in 'Tyrant.'Credit: Courtesy
Michael Handelzalts

There is a Yiddish saw that says, “man plans and God laughs” – yes, it sounds better in Yiddish – and it has a version attributed (I think) to John Lennon according to which “life is what happens when you have other plans” (in his case it stopped). Anyway, it is one of those universal truths you can’t really disprove, and it works on all possible and even some impossible levels with the American TV series “Tyrant,” whose first episode of season two will alight on Yes Stars Action on August 6.

To recap: the series was created by the Israeli Gideon Raff, riding on the wave of success of his “Homeland” series (an American remake of an original Israeli action-suspense-spy-current politics in the turbulent Middle East), with the express aim of being about the Middle East – where things seem to be happening, but no one can tell why and how or how it will all end – but without being too specific as to details. Thus it was supposed to present a sort of a template of the exotic, a place on the verge of the wild East becoming “civilized” – experiencing democratic urges by optimistic, enthusiastic youngsters confronted with tyrants unwilling to concede authority, and yet aspiring to be “western” and “modern,” but being held back by their supposedly “primitive” genes.

At first it looked like the plans were working: the pilot, shot in Morocco, was picked up for a full season, and the circus had hit town when it was decided that the whole series would be shot in Israel. But then and there God had his laugh, and plans started to change.

First, the creator of the series itself – a tyrant of sorts, as plots go – was deposed, as it were, due to creative conflicts with the renowned “show runner” Howard Gordon, who had remained at the helm. Then Operation Protective Edge erupted, and the “Tyrant” production team had to flee the Middle East to safer places.

Then the critics had a field day with the series, being suspicious of the ability and/or will of an Israeli creator to be fair enough to the intricacies of the Middle East (where Israel is supposedly the odd Western element out), following which they began to tear the plot and casting apart.

By the time we all got to the series itself, it turned out to be actually – as most good stories are – a “family affair” in political-topical disguise. We had two sons of a recently, and suddenly, dead (not assassinated, oddly enough) tyrant of a fictional state, Abuddin. The elder brother, Jamal, assumes the tyrannical mantle, and is as ruthless and brutal (and a rough-sex maniac) as one can expect a typical Middle Eastern ruler to be. The Palestinian-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom got accolades for his acting.

The younger brother, Bassam, left Abuddin 20 years before the beginning of the series, and became Barry, with a career (as a physician) and a family (wife, teenage son – gay, why not? – and daughter) in the U.S. It just so happens that when the prodigal son arrives for a family visit (a nephew’s wedding, and a subplot) the patriarch kicks the bucket.

The English actor Adam Rayner, as Barry, got the worst reviews, and was found “lackluster” (that was the mildest criticism). But slowly, as the series progressed and grew on viewers and critics, it turned out that his sort of “bland” looks and way of underacting had a purpose. Gradually it emerged that Bassam-Barry actually was trying to run away from his own tyrannical, ruthless streak, and attempting to curb the excesses of his older brother for the sake of the family and of Abuddin and its oppressed citizens, which meant confronting his own violent – but hitherto repressed – self.

And we had the women: Jamal’s wife, played by the Israeli Moran Atias, who was in the past jilted by Bassam (another subplot), and Barry’s very American wife (Jennifer Finnigan) with her own agenda, torn between her love for Barry and her fear of being stranded with her family in the wild east.

New plans are hatched

By the end of the first season, when it was still unclear whether there would be a second season at all, we had Bassam planning – claiming that he had no choice, as fate was forcing his hand – a coup against Jamal, with American backing. But the Americans chickened out, Jamal proved to be smarter and wilier, and Barry found himself in prison, awaiting trial and possibly a death sentence. Which could have been a nice ending, had not the option for a second season been picked up, sort of after the last moment.

So new plans had to be hatched to restart the action and bring in a crane to extricate the plot from the cliffhanger it had arrived at. With season two, the critical winds for “Tyrant” changed in the U.S. The very same critics who picked on it in season one, pointing out discrepancies, are now praising it for getting its act together, sticking to family ties and using politics and current affairs as a background, or canvas, on which family ties bind and unwind.

The first episode of season two has Jamal trying to use Abuddin’s oil – yes, there is oil in the soil of the Middle East, surprise, surprise – to modernize the country with the help of Chinese money. But it also has Bassam sentenced to death, in jail, awaiting Jamal’s decision as to the time of execution (with his wife pushing him to get it over with). And believe me, it’s not a spoiler when I tell you that there is a very dramatic execution scene in the first episode of season two.

But as a serious serial viewer, you have to ask yourself a question: Is it a viable plan for a series to start with a premise about two brothers – one very Eastern with all the stereotypes involved, and the other westernized but tainted – and then get rid of one of them right at the beginning of season two?

As I have started this column talking about plans going awry and yet managing to change course by going for Plan B or C, I really don’t know at this stage – I’ve seen episode one already, as the press has some privileges – whether Bassam-Barry is still alive or not. So as cliffhangers go, “Tyrant” keeps delivering the goods. And plans can go hang themselves out to dry.