Genre: TV Pilot – Drama
Premise: The son of an Arab dictator, Barry has fled his past and built a life in the United States. But when his father calls him back for his nephew’s wedding, he will ask Barry to come back into the family.
About: This upcoming FX show has a complicated backstory. The Hollywood Reporter did a wonderful piece on it recently that gets into a lot of the details. Basically, the guys behind Showtime’s breakout show, Homeland, went to market with their next project, Tyrant, and started a bidding war with FX winning due to an on-air commitment. Since then, the writing team, Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, have split up, due to disagreements over the show’s direction, that eventually led to Raff (the less experienced of the two) leaving. This seems to go back even further, as Raff is the one who came up with Homeland, but had zero day-to-day involvement with the show itself, which, it’s implied, Gordon resented.
Writer: Gideon Raff (executive produced by Howard Gordon, Craig Wright and Gideon Raff)
Details: 68 pages – November 27, 2012
After reading that Hollywood Reporter piece, I was wondering if I could read this pilot objectively. On the one hand, it sounds like they’d repurposed the show seven times before it finally hit the cameras, then added two more for good measure! So you’re thinking, there must have been a lot wrong with it.
On the other hand, you’re rooting for the underdog tale of the little show that could. Tyrant has so many things working against it – the biggest of which is, will an American audience care about a show centering around a Middle Eastern family? – that you can’t help but hope that it beats the odds and succeeds.
Of course, the terrifying reality of the entertainment business is that the bored consumer who’s just jostled through a 14-hour work day and put the kids to bed, doesn’t give a shit about how your show (or movie) came to be. They could care less that you had Ang Lee and lost him, or that the show had to be moved to five different countries to shoot. All they care about is if it’s a good show or not. Well, if they stay close to the pilot draft I just read, Tyrant isn’t going to be good. It’s going to be great.
40 year-old Barry is a struggling optometrist who works out of a ratty mini-mall in Orlando. Barry has a secret though. His family runs the country of Asima (a fictional stand-in for a Middle Eastern country), and are some of the richest people in the world. You get the feeling that if Barry left that life for this one? There’s gotta be a damn good story there.
Barry’s married to an American woman, Molly, and has two teenagers, the artsy 17 year-old Emma and the excitable 15 year-old Sammy. Unfortunately for Barry, his brother’s son, who lives back in Asima, is getting married, and even Barry, with his myriad of excuses, can’t get out of this one.
So he and the family fly to Asima where they meet the family Barry grew up with. There’s the father and president/dictator of the country, Hassan. Then there’s Barry’s older evil brother, Jamal. The Ferrari-driving philandering Jamal is probably the most evil person you’ll ever see on TV – he rapes underage women with guards in the room to make sure he’s not attacked, he molests his son’s fiancée, and he orders death to anyone who opposes him.
It’s clear Jamal doesn’t want Barry here, which is fine by Barry, ’cause he wants to get out of Asima as soon as possible.
Barry’s son, Sammy, however, can’t get enough of Asima. Instead of living in the strip-mall dominated middle-class suburbs, he’s hanging out in a palace! Not only that, but the brash, confident Jamal is everything Sammy wished his own father could be, and he immediately sees him as a role model. Oh, but Sammy has a secret. He’s gay. And in a world where homosexuality is punishable by death, maybe staying in Asima isn’t the best idea.
I think we all see where this is going. Barry’s father unexpectedly falls ill, and the family has no choice but to discuss who gets the throne once he dies. Everyone assumes it’ll be Jamal, of course, but Hassan shocks everyone when he says he wants Barry to succeed him. Barry wants nothing to do with leading this corrupt country, though. He wanted to get out of here yesterday. The problem is, it may not be up to him anymore.
Okay, let’s just get something out of the way first. This IS The Godfather, the Arab version. We have a wedding, we have a dying leader. A reluctant heir is chosen. I mean, it’s not a beat for beat remake or anything. But it’s the same auditorium with the seats rearranged. The thing is, it didn’t matter. Because it was awesome.
When you’re talking about TV shows, you’re talking about interpersonal conflict – conflict between characters. Since you don’t have the advantage feature films have (huge exterior conflicts to drive the drama like reptilian giants, robots, Loki, Apes), the best way to keep the drama flowing is via conflict between characters.
For that reason, you want one main heavy conflict duo you can keep coming back to. In Breaking Bad, it’s Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Here, it’s Barry and his brother, Jamal. Not only is Jamal the most evil person in existence, but he has a completely different idea of how to rule the country from Barry. Barry wants to rule through diplomacy. Jamal wants to rule through terror. On top of that, you have a deep history between the two and you have their basic sibling rivalry. As a result, every scene they’re in together is potent.
Speaking of Barry, I loved the complication behind his character. See, when you write a character, you don’t want to craft him too heavily in one direction. Well-constructed characters are complicated. They have other sides to them than the side they generally show the world.
(spoiler) In Tyrant, there’s a series of flashbacks of Barry and Jamal as children. Jamal is athletic and tough. Barry is nerdy and withdrawn. In the pilot’s final scene, their father wants a seemingly innocent man killed, and he asks Young Jamal to do it. Young Jamal points the gun, but he’s too scared to pull the trigger and runs away. As the father goes to deal with this, Young Barry picks up the gun and shoots the man five times. Barry may be against the way his father rules the country, but when he’s called upon to make complicated decisions, he delivers.
Now, since we know that Barry has the capacity to be bad, there’s an unpredictability to him that’s exciting. I think it’s always more interesting if we’re not sure what a character is going to do from situation to situation. Think about it. How boring is it if a character always does the right thing? Or always does the wrong thing? It’s when you’re unsure that the scene is truly charged. Pay attention to “The Governor” in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Walking Dead to see how effective this approach can be.
I’m not sure what this says about Jamal though. This guy is so over-the-top bad and if there’s one criticism I had with the screenplay, it’s that Jamal is so two-dimensional. I’m betting that this is one of the first things they addressed moving forward though.
Another thing Tyrant did well was it made sure there were a lot of memorable moments in the pilot. It’s rare that I see one inventive or original scene in a pilot these days – something you truly haven’t seen before, but Tyrant had 5-6 of them. (spoilers) There was the bite-off-dick scene, the molestation of the daughter-in-law scene, the Young Barry shoots a man dead scene. Raff was not afraid to push the boundaries and write some pretty boundary-pushing stuff.
In another great scene, Barry’s family gets on the their plane to go to Asima, only to find out it’s completely deserted. Barry learns that his brother has bought up every seat on the plane for them. Sammy is thrilled. He flops down in first class, thinking this is the greatest thing ever. What does Barry do? He heads right back to seat 18c in Coach, the seat he was assigned to.
That’s what really sets Tyrant apart. Not only was this a memorable scene, but it used the scene to TELL YOU ABOUT THE CHARACTERS. By staying in his assigned Coach seat, Barry shows us how much disdain he has for his family and the way they go about things. Whereas by showing Sammy take a first class seat, we know he will be susceptible to the excesses of his grandfather’s family.
Will all this mean a big hit? I don’t know. I don’t know how much Gordon has changed the script. And we still don’t know if an American audience will care to watch a show about an Arab family. But I sure hope they do. This series has the potential to be a classic. Without a doubt, I’ll be checking it out when it airs. This is the most excited I’ve been for a TV series in forever.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you write a TV pilot, you’re trying to set up as many little threads of conflict as you possibly can, so that the people watching the show will want to tune in week after week to see how those conflicts play out. If you don’t set up any threads of conflict, nobody will care about your show. Nobody will want to see the next episode. I guarantee it. So here, we have the base conflict between Barry and Jamal. We have conflict between Barry and his son (who doesn’t like his father’s style of ruling). We have conflict between Barry and the country he’s ruling. We have conflict with Sammy being gay, and how dangerous being gay is in this country. Barry’s daughter hates the country and doesn’t want to be here. Barry has a former girlfriend he still holds a candle for who’s now married to Jamal. Barry’s wife finds out about this, setting up a conflict between these two women. Probably the biggest conflict of all will be between Barry and himself. Much like how Walter White struggled with his moral compass as a drug dealer/family man, Barry will struggle with all the morally questionable decisions he’ll have to make as a dictator. You look at the future of this show and it’s just drowning in unresolved conflict, which is exactly the way you want it to be.