While we wait to see if FX’s Tyrant will be picked up by another network, there’s been some interesting news from Tyrant‘s EP Howard Gordon. Apparently, he also felt the first season left a lot to be desired.
In a Sept. 7 interview with Deadline, Gordon gave his true feelings on that first season, which involved a host of offensive things as well as meandering characterizations.
GORDON: Well, I’m disappointed but not entirely surprised [about Tyrant‘s cancellation]. We were hoping for an eleventh-hour reprieve, but I’ve long known it was an uphill battle. But look, I also dn’t think the first season was our strongest season and that didn’t help matters unfortunately. I try to be pretty honest in my own assessment of what seasons worked and how they worked in relation to each other. We got off to a slow start and never really recovered from it, that’s just a fact.
I have to agree with Gordon. As much as I do love Tyrant, and as much as I can see its potential, I too think that the first season affected Tyrant for the rest of its television life. Even though the show began picking up steam towards the end of the first season and had finally found its footing in the second and third seasons, that first season still sticks in the mind as a season that didn’t give off the best impression. If anything, that first episode in particular seemed like it wanted to do as much as it could to garner its TV MA rating.
Related: ‘Tyrant’ recap: A traumatic start to a season | Monique’s Entertainment Weekly’s Community Blog recap
Howard’s surprising honesty has given me a good insight as to how the show was able to rectify itself, though. EPs who are honest about their own work and are willing to criticize themselves along with the TV critics shows a personal commitment to storytelling.
Hopefully, Tyrant can come back in some form. Perhaps it could even be rebooted in some way so that Howard can finally tell the story he might have wanted to tell from the get-go. Seems like Howard gives an indication as to what kind of story he wanted to tell, a story that was finally unfolding in the third season.
DEADLINE: And you had that speech by Annet Mahenddru’s widowed Nafisa Al-Qadi proclaiming that “Islam is peace”–not exactly a statement we hear on TV of late especially durig this election season.
GORDON: One of the ideas and one of the themes we had this season was the battle for the heart and the soul of Islam. Obviously, neither Chris nor I are [speaking] with any authority on that, but we did want to reflect voices in Islam that don’t get a platform or that stage enough in real life because they are blunted by louder, more violent and angrier voices. So we gave a fictional platform to some very real voices. Those are some of the voices that some of our regional consultants on the show felt the series had kept out of the story.
What do you think about Tyrant’s first season? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
One of the most interesting things to come out of the three-season run of Tyrant was the handling of the character of Bassam. Bassam has been a character that has been an interesting component of my TV criticism of Tyrant. In fact, calling him “interesting” is an understatement and a euphemism. I’ll quote what I wrote about him for the Entertainment Weekly Community Blog in the very first episode of the very first season:
First, there is a white British actor (Adam Rayner) playing a Middle Eastern character. Did his casting alter the casting of Barry’s mother, Amira (Alice Maud Krige), so there could be some kind of continuity and for the show to possibly avoid accusations of whitewashing? Even so, the fact that there is a non-Middle Eastern actor playing the savior-type role opposite an actual Middle Eastern actor (Ashraf Barhom) playing the devil in a suit [Jamal] is quite troubling.
As you can see, I’ve always had a problem with Bassam being played by a white actor. The idea that a show set in the Middle East needed a white face to market to American audiences is ludicrous. It’s the classic Hollywood trope of having a white actor play Detective Chan or Othello; for some reason, studio heads think that the majority of white Americans won’t be able to identify with someone who doesn’t look like them. It doesn’t give the viewing public any credit for their own smarts, and it doesn’t give POC actors any credit for actually having acting talent as well as the ability to connect with audiences, no matter what the audience might look like. If white actors are expected to have the ability to connect with white and non-white audiences, then POC actors should be given that same chance.
Tyrant buttressed the whitewashing with Jamal, who is played by Israeli-Arab actor Ashraf Barhom. How come Barhom, who is of the region, tasked to play the “bad Arab” guy, while Rayner, who is not only white but has no cultural ties to the Middle East, gets to play the “good Arab” brother? To go back to Hollywood tropes, it’s the classic tale of having the white lead play against aggressive, sexually deviant, villainous “natives.” For instance, when Tarzan has to fight tribes of cannibals, or when the white lead has to defeat the Dragon Lady. This trope is even as recent as 2015’s No Escape, in which Owen Wilson and his family have to escape the terrorizing Asian natives in an unspecified Pacific island nation.
Now, none of this is to say that Barhom didn’t play the shiznit out of his role. Indeed, despite Jamal’s villainy, he still imbued the right amount of humanity for Jamal to be seen, at times, as a tragic figure who’s biggest enemy is himself. But that portrayal of Jamal is completely due to Barhom’s tremendous acting talent. Otherwise, Jamal would have been a one-note monster, instead of a complicated one.
Related: Monique’s Tyrant recaps for the Entertainment Weekly Community Blog
Talking about Jamal, though, is a digression from the topic at hand, which is Bassam’s self-hatred. The reason I state Bassam has self-hatred is due in part due to the fact that he’s played by a white actor. To quote myself in a previous Tyrant article:
To me, Rayner’s Bassam hints at something unsavory that seems to be true to the character; Bassam has a large level of self-hate. Not just for his own actions, but for his culture. Sure, he comes from a line of despots. But he can’t separate the actions of his family from the overall culture of his home and the citizens that make up his home. He strikes me just as what he looks like; a Middle Eastern man who passes for white so he can get the benefits of living in America, and who lives in America so long that he removes himself from his home, his former identity, and his former actions. But, with Rayner’s Bassam taking this tone, there are new questions. Is this the tone the creator(s) wanted for Bassam in the first place? Does this tone make him less sympathetic? Would critics like me even see this side of Bassam if he was cast using an actual Middle Eastern actor (because Middle Eastern people come in all shades)? I don’t know. Such is the case with a complicated scenario of Rayner as Bassam.
The way Rayner has played Bassam (and the way he has been written) has been utterly fascinating to me and, if it was handled more adeptly at the beginning, could have told a very nuanced tale of a man who finds himself on an unwilling journey to come to terms with his culture and his ethnicity.
Shaun Lau, one of the contributors to my currently-evolving series #RepresentYourStory, wrote about his own battles of overcoming internalized self-hate. His story sounds a lot like what Bassam’s might have been; feeling like you’d rather be accepted by the Westernized (i.e. white) gaze than your own culture, wanting to escape and become something more than what you felt you were. The hard lesson that Lau wrote about was coming to terms with his own thinking patterns, taking the time to actively unlearn what he’d been told by society, and ultimately becoming a better, more well-rounded person because of it.
It seems like Bassam would have to do some of this introspection himself; he has rejected his culture, his heritage, and even his name, choosing to go by “Barry” in America. He marries into whiteness, has kids who can be accepted into whiteness, and for all anyone knows is a coded-white individual in American society with a medical practice. He was able to cross over just like how he wanted. However, he still carried fear and resentment of his own culture, and this resentment comes out either in outright rejection of Abuddin, violence, or wanting to take Abuddin from its roots and transplanting the centuries-old culture into something Bassam would find palatable while he’s interim President.
Bassam’s self hate manifested itself into a Western-centric dictatorship, promising to lead Abuddin from the ties of the past and into a more, supposedly “structurally-sound” future. But Bassam’s future is basically just installing what he believes to be Western-only ideals, like democracy and free elections. However, as Leila herself told him toward the end of the first season, he can’t truly believe that no one in the Middle East has never heard of democracy before he came back from America. In fact, there are several Middle Eastern countries who engage in democracy, so yes, democracy existed in the Middle East long before Bassam decided to showcase it as a newfangled approach. Bassam’s belief about democracy being only a Western thing is just one of the ways in which Bassam’s idolizing of America could be a character beat worth investigating, but it becomes increasingly problematic since it’s a white actor playing the character. What could be seen as a Middle Eastern character fetishizing America because of his own internal self-acceptance issues becomes American propaganda due to a white actor playing the role. In short, Bassam comes out look more like the “evangelized native” trope (which could also be considered a type of “Uncle Tom” trope) than a conflicted man trying to find acceptance in a new cultural (and even racial) identity.
The throughline of Bassam’s internalized racism was abjectly clear in his actions after Emma’s death, which pushed both him and his wife Molly over the edge into Islamophobia. Even when he’s lording over his own people in the country’s highest office, Bassam can’t shake the idea that the people—his people—aren’t a monolith. Instead, especially after the death of his daughter at the hands of terrorists, he decides to lump all of Abuddin and neighboring countries under the same “terrorist” label instead of trying to secure his people from terrorist acts due to a love of country and its people. The irony is that he acts just as much like a terrorist as the actual terrorists, and it stems from his own self-hate.
What is fascinating, though, is that Bassam’s discomfort with his culture seemed to abate a little bit after Jamal leaves him in the desert to die. During Season 2, Bassam is forced to come to terms with himself, his rejection of Islam, and the hurt of the people wasting away under Jamal’s regime. He picks up the habit of prayer again, gets back in touch with the common man when he’s a guest at Daliyah’s then-husband’s house, and eventually, becomes the leader of the rebellion. It was during this time that Bassam seemed to be the most at-home within himself. He was fighting for his people’s well-being, he was praying with them, and he was living for them. When Bassam acquires the presidency, though, his old self-hating habits come back, and he’s once again coding himself under whiteness, disassociating himself from the people he grew to love.
Bassam’s dis-ease with himself and his culture is something that should be analyzed and thought about upon any repeat viewings of the series. However, Bassam’s story could have been even more adeptly told if Bassam was played by a Middle Eastern actor from the beginning. A Middle Eastern actor could have brought his own experiences and the experiences of people he knows to the role of Bassam, making Bassam’s plight to self-acceptance even more truthful to real life. This kind of nuance would have spoken volumes, and it would have made Bassam possibly one of the few Middle Eastern characters on TV who is a fully-realized character.
However, having the role whitewashed takes away any truthfulness a viewer could parse from it. Currently, all Bassam ever became was a big “What if?” character. What if he was portrayed in more truthful manner? What if his storyline was fully fleshed-out from the beginning? What could Bassam had been if there was much more consideration given to his characterization and his motives, as well as how his culture affects him?
Possibly the best allegorical character for Bassam is Robert Downey Jr.’s character from 2008’s Tropic Thunder, Kirk Lazarus, which is somehow both an underrated and laser-precise skewering of Hollywood culture. Kirk is a white Australia actor, yet he’s known for “method acting,” including acting as a black man in the fictional Vietnam War-era metafilm in the movie. The most famous line from the film comes from Kirk, saying, “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” This is precisely who Bassam is. He’s a white British man playing a Middle Eastern man disguised as a white American man, who then decides to go back home to become a dictator of a people whom he doesn’t know. If Kirk Lazarus is supposed to be absurd on purpose, then Bassam is absurd unintentionally. Bassam is a character who shouldn’t have been given the Kirk Lazarus treatment.
What do you think about Bassam’s self-hate issues? How would you have written Bassam? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
Tyrant, a surprise FX hit, has been cancelled after three seasons. Tyrant started out as a rough show for me, to be honest, but it has grown into one of the most delightfully subversive and thought-provoking shows on television for me. I’ve also been able to get to know some of the cast members on a personal basis, and while it’s always cool to say “I know that person on TV,” it’s even more rewarding to be able to help them promote the show and learn more about their acting processes. In short, Tyrant has become a very important part of my life on a personal basis, so I’m truly sad to see that it’s gone.
The importance of Tyrant goes beyond just my own personal stake in the show. Tyrant provided its viewers with a much more multifaceted look at the Middle East. Granted, there were times when individual episodes or individual scripted moments of characterization could have not represented a character or characters in the most well-rounded light. But as a whole, the characters of Tyrant presented a microcosm of individuality. There are Western-aligned characters like Fauzi and Halima. There are characters who create their own space in society, like Leila. There are criminals like Ihab. There are despots like Jamal and, to be frank, his brother Bassam. There are people trying to find themselves, like Ahmed. There are idealists like Rami. Basically, just like in America, there are people who fit every mode of life. There is no one monolith of the Middle East, and I appreciate Tyrant for showing that, especially in its later seasons.
Related: Monique’s Tyrant recaps for the Entertainment Weekly Community Blog
Tyrant also provided a space for Middle Eastern actors to showcase their talents. Actors like Moran Atias, Alexander Karim, Ashraf Barhom, Cameron Gharaee, Sibylla Deen, Fares Fares and others aren’t normally on our TV screens and for no real reason. Yet, on Tyrant, we can finally see these actors portray characters that we either identify with or love to hate. Tyrant could (and should) be used as a platform for these actors. As I’ve written last year in my article, “The Next Omar Sharif: Why Finding the Next Middle Eastern Hollywood Star is Easier Than We Think”:
Tyrant has become one of the few places on television, if not the only place right now, where people can view Middle Eastern characters on a primetime show each week. The show could also act as a platform for many of its actors who are still looking for mainstream success…[T]he show’s stellar second season could be the true jumping off-point for the show’s stars and for other shows who want to follow in Tyrant‘s path.
Overall, Tyrant brought a new points of view into the homes of Americans each week, and the loss of Tyrant, a show with a predominately brown cast, will once again open up a void in media representation. Surely, TV producers and creators should be creating more shows about Middle Eastern characters and/or American characters of Middle Eastern descent. Tyrant shouldn’t be the only one holding down this responsibility. But Tyrant performed a very specific task for many Americans, which was creating a safe space to explore different experiences of Middle Eastern life.
Cameron Gharaee, who played Ahmed, spoke to me for the (sadly finished) Entertainment Weekly Community Blog about the importance of the show around this time last year. I’ll end the article with part of the exchange we had.
Seasons one and two featured a lot of references to real-life events like the Arab Spring and the fall of certain Middle Eastern regimes. There’s also the fact that this is an American show about Middle Eastern characters on an American network, which hasn’t happened in a long time, to be conservative about it. What do you think about Tyrant‘s influence in America? Do you think it’s helped open some minds about Middle Eastern people and ridding people of stereotypes?
We’re probably able to unveil some things in culture that maybe America doesn’t understand, or maybe they haven’t seen before. For me, the key to this show is just literally pulling the curtain back and saying, “This is what’s going on, this is what’s happening. You can take it in pieces … and see what it is that you like.” The great thing about a show like this, just from an actor’s standpoint, is just having these faces onscreen. You don’t see a lot of these characters. Usually it’s just a terrorist or just someone screaming into a microphone. I think what’s great about this show is that these are people too.
A lot of Americans don’t know about the Middle East, yet they have strong political views on things—but these are people too, and they have struggles. It makes it an even playing field for everyone, and it’s going to open a lot of doors, hopefully. Especially with the show doing well and people enjoying it, it can open the door for more shows. I think that’s what this is; it’s a bridge to testing the waters and saying, “Look, these shows are entertaining, these people do have an interesting culture.” It’s rich and colorful, and they have really amazing personas. The personalities of the culture are very fascinating … it’s a beautiful culture. I think this is a bridge to open that door for more stories to be told—and that’s all you can really hope for.
I have it on good authority that the Tyrant team is currently shopping the show around to other networks, and I certainly hope they succeed, because a show like this, and the messages it has given its audience, are too important to miss.
What did you love about Tyrant? What network do you hope it goes to? Give your opinions in the comments section below!