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The Tyrant of Cable

14 Aug 2014
The last decade of cable TV has seen remarkable growth, perhaps more than we want or need, given The Walking Dead and The Strain. As shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Dexter, 24 and soon Sons of Anarchy literally die off, we are seeing new suspenseful thrillers with high octane but more implied than actual violence - shows like Homeland, The Americans, and now Tyrant. All have an overseas tie-in that help leaven the stories.

Homeland could end at any time, due to plot holes that make even House seem realistic. The Americans is real, too real: it asks us to root for KGB agents even as they convert their children to the cause of Communism. Even though they help by giving us FBI agents who are as corrupt the Russians and twice as ugly, it is hard to see this going on for several years.

The real winner of this group maybe Tyrant, which on its face seems even more unlikely than The Americans. Instead of anti-heroes in the form of old enemies who no long scare, they ask us to root for anti-heroes in the form of modern enemies who do still scare, Arabic Moslems. The twist is that our putative hero, Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeen, has lived a thoroughly American life as a pediatrician in Los Angeles for 20 years. He's so American that his wife and daughter are blonde, and his son a closeted gay.
As a writer and student of popular story lines, I was sure I knew where this one was headed. Barry and family go back "home" to the fictional Arab state of Abbudin, where his father has ruled with an iron hand holding a spiked club since before Barry's birth. Barry's brother Jamal, the older of the two, has been raised to succeed their father in the traditional fashion of primogeniture, thus freeing Barry to pursue the life he preferred - one far from his father, who he loathes for committing horrible atrocities against his own men.

The visit is supposedly for a family wedding, that of Jamal's son, but as worldly TV watchers we know it will not be that easy. In fact, in short order it appears Tyrant will become a Godfather update set in the Middle East - wherein Dictator Dad and Brother Jamal die unexpectedly, leaving Barry in the family face-saving role held by, in another story, Michael Corleone.

Close, but no cigar: the show's writers have seen that movie too. Instead imagine a Godfather with only two sons, Fredo and Michael. Fredo dutifully tries to run the family business - Abbudin - as his father intended. Son Michael sees his brother's incompetence and maneuvers to ease him out, for the good of the country, so he can assume the position he has avoided like the plague his entire life. As he does, Barry likely becomes the man he always hated, his father; without a trace of self-irony he comes to see that his dad wasn't such a bad dictator after all.

In spite of the early Godfather foreshadowing, this story has its own interesting cast of characters and subplots to keep the story going: scheming wives, grasping generals, power hungry political rivals and more. But the core story, the idealistic youngster of the family called to duty earlier rejected, is pure Puzo (as in Mario Puzo, author of the original Godfather book). Pull up a chair and watch power turn a liberal democrat evil, in Tyrant. Unlike Godfather or Breaking Bad, you can still believe redemption is possible. Watch Barry's takeover of Abbudin: will he kill his brother as Michael did Fredo, or will brother Jamal go out gracefully? I'm not yet ready to take that bet either way, but I will enjoy finding out.

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