The pilot episode of a series is about potential. Carrying the heavy burden of introducing characters, settings, and premises without being tediously expositional and pointing toward what could be an involving story — or template, in the case of a procedural — the first show is crucial in setting a tone, even if subsequent episodes improve or devolve from there.
Which is why it’s tough to get a good read on the new FX drama “Tyrant,” premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m., based solely on the first episode. It has some compelling elements and some weaknesses, but since so much of what happens in the pilot is pure setup, it’s hard to tell where it’s going to go and if it will do so in a way that is engrossing or, given its subject matter, problematic.
In the opening minutes we meet Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), a mild-mannered LA pediatrician, and his family: his blond, All-American wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), and their two teens, fun-loving 16-year-old Sammy (Noah Silver) and cranky 17-year-old Emma (Anne Winters).
The family is headed to Barry’s homeland — the fictional Middle Eastern country Abbudin — to attend a wedding. Barry, having left Abbudin as a teen, seems beyond uneasy about the journey, and, taking her cues from her dad, so does Emma. Molly and Sammy, however, are looking forward to the adventure and meeting Barry’s family, who, we learn, rule the country and live in a lavish palace.
There seems to be some rudimentary understanding among the family members that Abbudin is a country in turmoil. Barry knows that this turbulence is due in no small part to his long-serving dictator father, Khaled Al-Fayeed (Nasser Faris), and his right-hand man, Barry’s older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom).
After touching down in Abbudin, we discover that the “Tyrant” of the title could be several people. Is it Barry’s father, who clings to the belief that he has been good to his people even though we see in flashbacks that he is far from benevolent? Is it Jamal, who was groomed to inherit the throne in ways that have turned him into a stomach-churning villain who commits several atrocities in the first hour alone? Or is it Barry, who may be suppressing some tyrannical tendencies of his own and whose escape to assimilation in the US was triggered by a traumatic childhood?
Among the components that work in the first episode, and offer the most reason to return for a second, are the performances of Rayner and Barhom as the very different brothers thrown back together and navigating family hierarchy — and the jealousies and resentments inherent in that.
Rayner, in particular, conveys multitudes beneath his rigidly controlled surface.
It’s hard to say whether the other actors will be given stuff as interesting to do; poor Finnigan essentially is forced to continually ask a variation of the question “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?,” that is when she’s not urging her husband to get closer to a family that seems so clearly a source of serious danger.
Oddly enough, the biggest issue with the series, at least in terms of investing immediately, isn’t the political thornbush of the topic, but the fact that in Abbudin everyone speaks English, even when native Arabic speakers are talking among themselves, which just feels strange, not to mention unlikely. If they can speak Spanish on “The Bridge” and Russian on “The Americans” — both fellow FX series — this seems like an odd choice for “Tyrant,” which unlike the other series is actually set in another country.
There are nine more episodes in this first season, however, and given the executive producers’ resumes — which include “Homeland,” “24,” “The West Wing,” and “Scandal,” among others — and the stronger moments of the pilot, “Tyrant” is worth a chance.
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