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Review: FX's Tyrant and the Return of Covert Affairs

Tyrant

The sins of the father weigh unusually heavily on the privileged but conflicted sons at the core of FX’s contrived and not very convincing new drama Tyrant (Tuesday, 10/9c) — but what do you expect when not-so-dear old dad is an honest-to-badness Middle Eastern dictator and the family is “in the oppression business,” which is how estranged scion “Barry” (born Bassam) Al-Fayeed dourly looks upon his unhappy heritage.

From the creators of Homeland and the Israeli series on which it was based, the topical Tyrant is set in the fictional dynasty of Abbudin (Morocco and Israel are among the actual locations). There, a sibling clash of philosophies erupts between the Americanized Barry (Adam Rayner, a charismatic British actor giving a pinched, bland performance), a Pasadena pediatrician who fled the palace intrigues 20 years ago, and his brutish brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom, a one-note ogre), next in line for the nation’s so-called presidency. The fun, such at it is, starts when Barry reluctantly escorts his very California family to his homeland for a wedding, the entourage including concerned but supportive wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) and their adolescent kids: sullen daughter Emma (Anne Winters, apparently channeling Homeland‘s Dana Brody) and happy-go-lucky — and then some — son Sammy (Noah Silver), who wonders why no else is digging the idea of being treated like royalty.

You know Barry’s going to be a chore of a wet blanket the moment he arrives at LAX to discover his father has commandeered their entire airliner, and he refuses to sit anywhere on the long, empty flight but in the coach seats he ordered. Spoilsport. And not long after he lands and takes the temperature of Abbudin’s violently rebellious and ill-treated citizenry, an improbable number of unfortunate circumstances compel the self-righteous Barry to become Abbudin’s one-man moral conscience. Given the show’s title and FX’s reputation with anti-heroes, it’s fair to assume Barry will eventually become morally tainted by his power struggles with Jamal and his brand of rape-torture leadership. But the journey early on is an awfully predictable one.

Some ambitious but flawed dramas get better the more you watch. Tyrant is not one of them. The plotting is obvious, the characters broadly and shallowly drawn, and authenticity evaporates the moment you realize everyone in this land is speaking in clipped Faux-rabian British accents like out of some ’40s melodrama. Molly has a point when she confronts mopey Barry and declares to her husband, “What do you think you’re going to do: show up like some kind of movie hero and wrap things up in a long weekend?” Given how he absurdly puts himself right in the middle of a volatile hostage situation by the second hour, you may begin to wonder if Barry has a Harrison Ford, if not God, complex.

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ANNIE’S GOT HER GUN: And she’s all business as USA Network’s enjoyably diverting espionage thriller Covert Affairs returns for a fifth season (10/9c) with Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), the spy who came in from the cold — in this case, a mysterious four-month off-the-grid exile following last season’s rogue mission. “I’d like to go back to when things were simpler,” she says upon her reunion with her uneasy CIA colleagues, including the ever-loyal Auggie (the invaluable Christopher Gorham). Not that anything’s ever simple in the deadly game they’re playing.

Annie’s arms-length attitude toward even her closest allies suggests she’s somewhat damaged goods, but she jumps at the chance to follow leads on a terrorist threat to Chicago — where she encounters a dashing security contractor (Body of Proof‘s Nicholas Bishop) who admires her new blunt attitude. “I’m not most spies,” she huffs, a not-so-humble brag that further endears her to him. But it looks like romance will have to wait, as her assignment takes a twist that should keep the agency on edge for most of the season. I’m in.

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