The Ratings Have Spoken: Will FX Depose of 'Tyrant'?

The second series of the U.S. drama set in a fictional Middle-Eastern country has incorporated Islamic State into recent episodes. Unlike ISIS, its end seems near.

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'Tyrant' returns for a second season. This time, the would–be Caliphate rides into town.
'Tyrant' returns for a second season. This time, the would–be Caliphate rides into town. Credit: Courtesy of Yes

Listening to the regular moans of our PM and his ministers about what they see as a “lack of governability” – i.e., the existing rules and regulations, legal advisers, et al that restrict them from implementing their pet, far-reaching reforms – one might wonder whether they’d prefer instead to rule tyrannically in a state where democracy is nothing but a dream (a bad one, as far as they’re concerned). One can relate to that, since a tyrant’s wish is everyone’s command. Or is it merely that a tyrant’s commands make everyone wish him dead?

For all of them – and those of you looking to fill your viewing slots on Thursday evenings at 22:45 (on Yes Stars Action) – there is an antidote to such thoughts in the form of “Tyrant.” The series, co–created by Israeli writer-director Gideon Raff (who had already left the production before it premiered last year), is about the tribulations – not perks – of a tyrant in a small, “typical” Middle Eastern state (rich in oil in its soil, Muslim, repressive, but very much “online”), who has to grapple with family affairs, democratic unrest, and

Ah, and there’s the rub. When the series premiered in 2014, it was pretty clear that the time that had elapsed after it was greenlit by the FX cable channel until it premiered had played havoc with its topicality. For those who missed the first season, it featured a prodigal son, pediatrician Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), returning to his native Abbudin with his family after 20 years of running from his own past in the United States, to cope with cruel, older brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) and help him – or not – remain in power. It reflected the Arab Spring uprisings (Barry tries to steer Jamal into containing, not crushing it, but fails spectacularly), but blatantly disregarded the “hottest” factor in the Middle East in 2014 – namely, Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), with its bloody augurs of doom for us all.

While the series had its fair share of detractors – who criticized Rayner’s lack of charisma, or nitpicked about a pair of blue-eyed parents having a brown-eyed son – it also had its fans. They praised the acting, particularly that of Barhom as the current tyrant of Abbudin and his scheming, beautiful wife Leila (Moran Atias). Both of these actors are Israeli – she’s Jewish, he’s Arab – but the plot steers clear of the “Zionist” issue. It’s as if Israel doesn’t exist on Abbudin’s radar. The series, by the way, started its production in Israel with fanfare, only to flee to Turkey following last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Anyway, right at the last moment, just before the final episode of the first season was aired in 2014, FX granted the series (and Jamal) a reprieve.

The second season aired in the United States this summer, with much better reviews but ratings that were “plodding’’ at best (about 1.5 million viewers, more or less – though often less). Yes, which makes a point of being “in sync” with hot series in the United States, didn’t think, apparently, that ‘Tyrant” merited such treatment. The second series only started airing in Israel on August 6, so there are still a few weeks to go until the 12th and final episode, “Pax Abbudin.”

Real-life villain

And since the series – and us – are in medias res of the plot (in both senses of the word “plot”), I dare to divulge that in the second season, the would-be Caliphate rides into town (the series’ “arc”) in full lethal and menacing regalia, a public bloody execution included. Believe me, compared with what a spoiler ISIS has become in real life (for dreams of world peace and prosperity), telling you that it’s incorporated into the plot is a trifle.

As things stand now, Barry – whose execution we witnessed in episode one (as a punishment from his own unstable brother) – resurfaces. That, by the way, is not a spoiler: no Barry in the story equals no plot, as every seasoned viewer understands. While Jamal tries to consolidate his power, sell oil to the Chinese and thwart the democratic uprising, Barry hides out in a Bedouin village (the one first gassed by Jamal and then overrun by Islamic State), and forges personal and emotional relations (all the other characters presume him to be dead). One doesn’t need to be wily to realize who spared his life, but at this point his two-pronged dilemma – to be loyal to his family, or to the democratic principle and human rights – becomes a three-cornered one: the democratic insurgents forge an alliance with ISIS in order to overthrow the tyrant.

That quandary resembles, in a way, the situation in Syria, with the West – television viewers in the United States and Israel, Western rulers and Barry – having to decide which course to pursue in opting for one of three lesser evils. And in order for it not to become too topical and political, we also have family plots aplenty, with Molly and Noah (Barry’s American wife and son) returning to Abbudin to claim a share of Barry’s inheritance – millions are involved – and Noah’s issues with his sexual identity, plus troubles in Jamal’s family (a new, surprisingly related ally appears, but is he to be trusted?).

Without further spoilers, I can tell you – based on the Internet – that, by the end of the series, Jamal’s fate is unknown – which seems only fair given that this was also Barry’s fate at the end of season one.

Which brings me back to the beginning: What those ministers who vie for unbridled governability don’t understand is that there is no such thing as “a benevolent tyrant,” and being a tyrant forces one to be evil, which usually provokes a violent response sooner or later. As Shakespeare put it (usually attributed to “Richard III,” but actually from “Henry IV, Part 2”): “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (especially if it’s been snatched from another head). Or as Bertolt Brecht, who knew a thing or two about tyranny having lived in both Nazi Germany and East Germany, wrote in his poem “The Mask of Evil”: “On my wall hangs a Japanese carving / The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer. / Sympathetically I observe / The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating / What a strain it is to be evil.”

Be that as it may, the story of “Tyrant” – both for the eponymous character and the series – does not bode well for those who wish to possess absolute rule. By the end of the series, the jury is still out on the fate of Abbudin, although it looks as if both Jamal and ISIS’ forces are vanquished (file that one under “wishful thinking,” I’d say). And as of this writing, nearly a month after “Tyrant” ended in the United States, FX is keeping mum about renewing it for a third season. The finale was “open,” allowing for it “to be continued” – but don’t hold your breath.

Which just goes to show: If you ever wished to be a tyrant, perish that thought. Even a series entitled “Tyrant,” which valiantly tried, seemingly was retired and perished.