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Why “Tyrant” Matters

By: Blake Stilwell
Twitter @blakestilwell
In the new FX show “Tyrant,” Gideon Raff (of “Homeland” fame) created a series set in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Abbudin. The show attracts a lot of negative reviews from television critics, but what it depicts onscreen deserves a second look.Abuddin is ruled by the al-Fayeed Family, a dynastic secular dictatorial regime whose patriarch dies in the pilot and whose son is handed power but nearly dies in a car accident. The story thus far should sound familiar to anyone who is familiar with the history of the region. Though this story doesn’t completely follow the Asad narrative, it could use a lot of help in terms of story and character development as most of the criticism toward “Tyrant” is aimed at the stereotypical characters, flat performances, and borrowed plots.Hitfix’s Daniel Fienberg derided the casting of a white actor in a role written for a Middle Eastern one, though acknowledging the history of some Middle Eastern countries would allow for the main character’s more Caucasian features. Alan Sepinwall, also of Hitfix, touched on how “Tyrant” attempts to be a political drama, with stories “ripped from the headlines… but plays out more like Dallas.” Most damning, Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan criticized the show’s depiction of sexual assault against “nameless women” who are nothing more than “placeholders” as a cliché attempt to make a show seem edgy. It’s difficult to argue that the writing doesn’t need some work, but it isn’t hard to see the graphic onscreen violence means more than an attempt to make a predictable show seem edgier. If predictability and flat characters were truly the threshold of a show’s success, then many of the most popular television shows in America would never have made it past their first seasons.“Tyrant” does depict terrible scenes of violence toward the people of Abbudin, sexual assault and horrendous treatment of women, the difficulties of the average citizen of Abbudin to find work, upward mobility, and exercise basic human and civil rights. The show even touches on the concept of homosexuality in the conservative Middle East. All of these topics are depicted in vivid detail. With this in mind, “Tyrant” creates a setting that most directly resembles the real-world plight of Arab people under these regimes. Here we have a show, written by an Israeli lending a sympathetic hand to subjugated Arab peoples, giving them a voice by showing their plight in one of the few things Americans will listen to anymore: hourlong television drama.Considering Raff’s background and previous work, one might expect a damning treatment of Islam. After the initial screening of the show’s pilot, the Council on American-Islamic Relations slammed the show, saying it depicted “Arab Muslim culture … represented by terrorists, murderous children, rapists, corrupt billionaires, and powerless female victims… “In ‘Tyrant,’ even the ‘good’ Arab Muslims are bad.”

But Islam has yet to be a central theme of the show. In four episodes, the customs of the religion are only seen twice, once when Bassam (Adam Rayner) is looking to find his friend Fauzi (Fares Fares) in a mosque and again depicting a prayer before an unemployed man self-immolates because he can’t make an income to support his family (sound familiar?). Islam is not enemy. Nor should it be, because for the regimes the al-Fayeed represent, religion is used as a tool for those regimes to maintain power.

Instead, what you find is a condemnation of the atrocities committed by the regimes over the last 70 years. Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Maerz writes:

“… setting the show in Abbudin, a distant desert land that seems to borrow its real-life events from Egypt, Syria, and Libya. When you give your country a fake Middle Eastern name, you risk turning it into a stand-in for all Middle Eastern countries.”

That’s exactly the point. Abbudin is not a real Middle Eastern dictatorship. It’s every Middle Eastern dictatorship. The story references brutal crackdowns, torture, executions, mass killings like the kinds under the dynastic Asad regime in Syria, use of chemical weapons against their own people, similar to the gassing of Kurds under Saddam Hussein, the fraud and misuse of national funds, even the targeting and rape of female citizens as Uday and Qusay Hussein were said to do. Mass arrests, martial law, and brutal repression are a daily way of life for many in these countries.

There’s also a rebuke of the United States for allowing it to happen. This policy is personified by the character John Tucker (Justin Kirk), the US ambassador to Abbudin, who regularly sits in on Presidential council meetings, giving the rubber-stamp “OK” to the President to do what he needs to maintain stability, a real policy of the US toward many autocratic nations.

The brutality, inequality, and opulence deserves more than critical judgment for its onscreen violence. These horrifying depictions are a real infection of the Arab world. “Tyrant” depicts these things in full intensity because toning it down would dilute the message: These are real people who are struggling to live under a brutal regime. The victims on this show are representative of millions of oppressed people living in the Middle East right now.

American society often subsumes values portrayed in popular television (the Cosby Show, All In The Family, Will and Grace) and film (The Jazz Singer, Good Night and Good Luck, Supersize Me). Americans learn about international events through late-night comedy shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The United States government is co-opted by regimes like the fictional al-Fayeed to further its own interests at the expense of the millions of subjugated people. If media is the means by which we now learn and grow, then a television program showing an honest representation of whom we support might be able to make American viewers rethink US support for these countries, the lives of Arabs living under brutal dictatorships, and the extreme measures they take to liberate themselves.

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Why “Tyrant” Matters Reviewed by on . By: Blake Stilwell Twitter @blakestilwell In the new FX show “Tyrant,” Gideon Raff (of “Homeland” fame) created a series set in the fictional Middle Eastern cou By: Blake Stilwell Twitter @blakestilwell In the new FX show “Tyrant,” Gideon Raff (of “Homeland” fame) created a series set in the fictional Middle Eastern cou Rating: 0
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