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‘Tyrant’: Torn from the headlines (sort of …)


Talk about timing.

“Tyrant,” the new FX series about an American family that gets stuck in the mire of Middle Eastern politics, debuted Tuesday night as the region once again dominates the news cycle. It’s even filmed in the area — Tel Aviv to be exact — so it possesses visual veracity, too.

Yet, while “Tyrant” has all the trappings of a very violent reality — if seeing people begging for their lives before being shot in the head is too disturbing for you, don’t watch — it also feels decidedly unreal. But that’s to be expected from the production team of Howard Gordon (“Homeland,” “24”) and Gideon Raff (“Homeland”).

They are masters of combining the truthful with the theatrical and turning it into something compulsively watchable, if not always historically accurate. “Tyrant,” judging from the first episode, promises more of the same.

It stars British actor and former “Mistresses” heartthrob Adam Rayner as Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed, the estranged scion of a thuggish autocrat who rules the fictional country of Baladi with an iron fist. Barry now is a pediatrician in the U.S., has a beautiful American wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), and two typical teenagers, Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Anne Winters), and hasn’t been back to see his family in 20 years.

That changes when his mother begs him to bring the family over for a nephew’s wedding. Barry’s idea is to get in and out and not get involved in the politicking of his father or older brother (a very good Ashraf Barhom), whose boorish, brutal persona screams “villain” from his very first appearance on screen.

But Barry’s plans go awry after his father becomes ill and dies. What was to be a short holiday could turn into an unwelcome life commitment.

In between, Gordon and Raff crank up the suds. This being cable, there’s the requisite violence and sex, and there’s so much slapping going on, you’d swear the actors got paid by the smack.

Still, for all of that, the performances are generally strong and it will be intriguing to see where the characters go from here. Though the American family is at the heart of “Tyrant,” the series also provides a showcase for many actors of Middle Eastern origin while also offering a glimpse into an often misunderstood culture.

If “Tyrant” can get beyond the one-dimensional imagery of dictators and terrorism — and make even its most nasty characters fully-formed human beings — then it might become more than just a bullet-riddled soap opera.

 

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