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Adam Rayner as Barry Al Fayeed; Jennifer Finnigan as Molly Al Fayeed; Ashraf Barhom as Jamal Al Fayeed; Fares Fares as Fauzi Nadal; Moran Atias as Leila Al Fayeed; Noah Silver as Sammy Al Fayeed; Anne Winters as Emma Al Fayeed; Salim Dau as Yussef; Mehdi Dehbi as Abdul; Alice Krige as Amira Al Fayeed; Justin Kirk as John Tucker
Paul Asay

On the ageless sands of Abbudin, change is coming.

For decades, the country has been ruled by Khaled Al Fayeed, a man as hard and unforgiving as granite who built a new land through might and subterfuge and the wealth of its black, bountiful oil. But Khaled is gone now, swept away like Ozymandias. His eldest son, Jamal—as cruel and maybe even crazy as his father was hard—is now the country's dictatorial president, and we've yet to see how he may reshape the political landscape.

It is left to Bassam, Jamal's younger brother, to push toward democracy. And it's no surprise that he would. Bassam left his homeland two decades ago and moved to America as part of a self-imposed exile. He goes by Barry now, not Bassam. He's married to an American doctor named Molly and has soaked up many of the country's ethos and values. Now back in Abbudin and serving as one of Jamal's closest advisors, Barry wants to see long overdue reforms come to life: more freedom, more openness, perhaps even real elections in which voters aren't told what box to check by the point of a bayonet.

But the country is being pulled elsewhere, too. General Tariq Al Fayeed, Jamal and Barry's uncle, liked things just fine when he was serving his stone-fisted brother. Nothing wrong with the occasional massacre to keep the people in line, he figures, and all this freedom talk makes him a little queasy. And then there's the Rashid clan—Bedouins who've long been the Al Fayeeds' most bitter enemies. In the midst of these proposed changes, they see an opportunity to topple a weakening regime.

And so Jamal stands astride a country built, literally, on shifting sands. He understands Barry, but sees him as a rival as well. He's wary of change but too worried to stand still. And so he, all of Abbudin and the audience of this FX drama are left to wonder: Will change bring about a new dawn? Or a darkness covered in blood?

This being cable TV, probably both paths will be explored, depending on the episode. But Tyrant is actually more of a soapy summer show predicated on both sibling rivalry and palace intrigue. It's Dallas without the cowboy hats … and with an unpredictable standing army.

While Abbudin is certainly an Islamic country, religion's role in its upheaval is largely relegated to ambient calls to prayer and selected scenes in mosques. You won't get much insight on Islam here.

What you will get are piles of sex and violence, and sometimes both in the same scene. A woman is callously raped in the pilot episode—a development already much criticized by reviewers. Another girl is forcibly "inspected" (onscreen) to verify that she is a virgin. Women hold very little sway in the show's early going, and often are used merely as beautiful props—dressed in titillating or provocative clothing. (Abbudin's culture apparently boxed up the hijabs and burqas some time ago.) Add to that a subplot of closeted gay characters who risk being murdered if they come out.

Tyrant seems meant more as a summertime diversion than Emmy-contending smash. It has much of the severe content we've unfortunately come to expect from prestige-minded cable, but little depth to go with it. Change may be coming to Abbudin. But this FX show seems all too familiar.

Episode Reviews

"What the World Needs Now"

Jamal meets with his family's lifelong rival, Sheik Rashid, who insists on bringing free and open elections to Abbudin. Barry convinces Jamal to agree—much to the consternation of his hardline general/uncle and cagey wife, Leila.

Leila is so furious that she withholds sex from Jamal, and they talk frankly about erections and masturbation. Jamal responds by flying into the arms of a mistress; they kiss sloppily, engage in foreplay, make explicit sexual movements and share after-sex pillow talk. (She wears either lingerie or an open, see-through blouse and panties.) We hear an allusion to forced anal sex.

A man hits a rival on the back of the head and smashes him into a toilet, apparently killing him. There's talk of using poison gas on civilians and of killing protestors to silence them. Jamal and Barry drink hard liquor. The sheik smokes. Someone coughs and gags into a toilet bowl. We hear the s-word once, as well as "a--" and "g--d--n."