Tyrant premieres on FX tonight, and I don’t want to oversell it here because there are some flaws, but the pilot is good. It’s really good, and unlike subsequent episodes of Halt and Catch Fire over on AMC, early episodes of Tyrant only improve upon the already stellar pilot. It is, however, a tough sell, especially for American audiences, and FX’s marketing (at least what I have seen of it) doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining to an American audience why it should watch a television show about a dictatorial family set in the Middle East. But I’ll tell you why: The motherf**king Godfather, that’s why. Did you like the homages to The Godfather in Breaking Bad? Of course you did. Well, The Godfather straight-up inspired this entire series, and the premise is so brilliant (and so simple) I’m surprised that no one has thought of it yet.
Let me explain in a more digestible numbered format why you should watch Tyrant tonight:
1. Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) was originally signed to direct the pilot of Tyrant but ultimately dropped out due mainly to the fact he was just to f**king tired to take on such a monumental endeavor. And it is a monumental endeavor. The producers hired David Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter films) to replace him, which is hardly a step down. A show that has to impart so much information into one pilot episode needs a skilled hand to direct, and Yates was up to the task, and while the pilot is dense, it is absolutely not boring.
2. The overall arc of Tyrant borrows heavily from the Godfather series, and that setup is apparent in the pilot, only instead of a young and reluctant Michael Corleone joining his family business (the Mafia), a young, and reluctant Barry Al Fayeed joins his family business (dictatorial control of a Middle Eastern country, Abbudin, with some similarities to Syria, Jordan, and Egypt). Basically, “Barry” escaped his country two decades ago to get away from his controlling family and he became an American pediatrician and married an American woman and created a very American family. Twenty years later, he returns to Abbudin for a wedding, and JUST WHEN HE THOUGHT HE WAS OUT, THEY PULL HIM RIGHT BACK IN.
3. There were a lot of interest in Tyrant, but FX ultimately outbid HBO for the rights. Showtime didn’t enter into the negotiations because with Homeland, they didn’t want another drama with Middle-Eastern themes. The bidding process was based on the premise, and it’s easy to see why The Godfather as a Middle-Eastern dictator would be so appealing.
4. Dominic West was originally considered for the lead, but he wasn’t authentically Middle-Eastern looking enough, so they settled upon relatively unknown British actor Adam Rayner for the Michael Corleone type role, who is turns out is absolutely perfect. He has leading man good looks, but a character actor background and talent and because he’s not largely known, we have no predispositions: He’s a blank slate, which is necessary for a character with whom we immediately sympathize but who — like Walter White — may eventually be corrupted by his own power.
5. In the James Caan/Sonny Corleone role is Ashraf Barhom. He is an f**king force: Insane, abusive, out-of-control, and freakishly somehow almost likeable in spite of those characteristics. He is going to be seriously fun to watch. It’s kind of like having Breaking Bad’s Tuco Salamanca in charge of an entire country.
6. The original script was written by Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, although Raff (who created Prisoners of War the series that Homeland was based on) was eventually nudged out of the process, despite the fact it was Raff who came up with the original idea. The entire pilot process was a long and arduous one. Showrunner and creator Howard Gordon (who also created 24 and cut his teeth on The X-Files) has been incredibly diligent, working tirelessly on rewrites in order to perfect the pilot, and eventually scrapping his writers’ room and hiring another when the existing room didn’t churn out extended episodes as good as he wanted them to be. Raff, in fact, became a casualty of Gordon’s vision for the show: Raff wanted it to be mostly a family drama, while Gordon insisted that the show have a political component, and it’s that political component that makes it not only more interesting, but more culturally relevant.
7. Each episode cost around $3 million to produce, and though there aren’t massive special effects, you can still see how well the money has been spent in the pilot on the talent acquired (Justin Kirk is perhaps the biggest name, and his role as the American ambassador has been limited), on the location shots, and on the overall production value. Tyrant is not a pretender show; it’s not a drama that is trying to capture the buzz of another show. It’s a new, original, and engaging take on The Godfather that has the potential — if American audiences can get over a bias toward shows set in the Middle East — to be a cultural force.