Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Television Review: Tyrant Season 1

Well the first half of season two of Once Upon a Time kind of drags so I decided to take a break and watch the first season of Tyrant.



I have not visited nor have I have I studied in a university setting the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya,  or Egypt. And the same can be said for post colonialism and the Arab Spring in general other than in broad social studies survey courses and I apologize for anything horrifyingly off base I will say now or have even said while watching this show on Twitter.

Also no joke if I somehow manage to say something that sounds clever remember the previous statement and do not take it overly seriously this is after all (mostly) just a rant about a cable TV show. One of my biggest fears is that somebody takes something I say because I'm bored and kind of annoyed and runs with it.

Okay. Not wholy unlike Once. Tyrant is a show where I like the idea of it. An in-depth albeit fictional examination of Middle Eastern politics during the height of the Arab Spring or if you're over 40 the Iranian Revolution. And on top of that we are in an age where a really good show like that might be able to make it, where Generation Kill, In Treatment, Orange is the New Black, The Wire Treme, House of Cards, had their due.  Where shows can confidently deal with social issues, and revel in dialogue, and go for high concept without fear that the idiocracy will change the dial the moment something comes up the might need to check a news report on.

But the show keeps making weird choices forcing me to concede that it's a miss and that I really want a better version of this idea. And then I realize, revolutionary drama is not a new idea and that I actually have seen a better version of this basic story, albeit outside of a Middle Eastern skin.

Most of the basic story beats of this series can be found in Last King of Scotland along with a lean mean no nonsense script and better acting.  Or if you want to drink te... my usual colloquialism for going high brow won't work when I am specifically describing British Colonialism all the same I feel I also need to recommend Anthills of the Savannah and The Poisonwood Bible.

But the biggest face palm worthy decision I can think of has to do with how the show tackles race and nationality. Let's talk about Americanness

Okay so the show's protagonist "Barry" is supposed to be a Bashar al-Assad analogue.  He spent time in the west and is presented as less heavy handed moderate to his brother. And that would have been great giving the show some historical authenticity and depth if the show hadn't made two decisions.

The first is casting Adam Rayner. Generally I will be the first guy to decry assuming people's ethnicity based on how they look and making judgments about it, but eventually it's hard to get past that you have milk toast over here telling all the brown people how to run the country for most of the season.  It's a constant distraction.

Let's go back to Last King for a second. James McAvoy's character generally has the same advisory role but his entire arc was about him, as a metaphor for the west in general, realizing that he lacked the means to control Amin and that this guy was going to do whatever he wanted regardless of coaxing by the white guy in the room.

And especially with Middle Eastern dictatorships that were propped up by American and British oil interests that might be a good point to make.

One narrative of the Arab Spring in general is about the loss, and flailing maintenance of control both by western interests and Middle Eastern governments, and the attempt to identify and halt disruptive forces before chaos ensues or dealing with the calamity that comes when it is impossible.

The second choice is making his "American" family absolutely insufferable. They are idiots. They are what breaks the show for me however, look I get it. The show wants to make the very necessary point that Americans are out of touch with Middle-Eastern politics and most of the shit we say would be (almost) hilariously stupid if so many people were not suffering (I include myself in that statement). We are long past the point where any sort of easy solution to the Syrian Civil War can be found or managed. There are too many factions, nations and parties that have competing interests and will fight like hell for them.


But back to the show.

The American family tips the scale from sort of obtuse to "Are you actually trying to kill yourself". And none of the drama surrounding them works. I keep finding myself hoping some crafty internet editor will make a cut of this show entirely without them just to see if the show plays better. It would help some of the pacing at the very least.

On the other hand what ruins the show's credibility is what isn't there. The second act on deals with a Square protest analogous to the one that ended the reign of  Hosni Mubarak, yet the show spends very little time in the actual square with the protesters.

One episode in particular that downright pissed me off was when the Royals and the Americans are in a NIGHTCLUB debating what's going on in the square. WHY THE HELL ISN'T THE CAMERA IN THE SQUARE?!?!?!  Why is it so seldom any of the "rebel" characters look directly into the camera and say this (and I mean that in multiple ways) this is why I am so pissed off at the government.

By the same token one of the big reveals of the season has to do with a gas attack committed by the protagonist's father and it is seldom (it does happen) that any of the characters discuss what that moment meant to them and how it changed their lives. To be blunt almost all of them seem more interesting than the schmucks in the palace but they hardly get any screen time, the dissident journalist and his daughter, the man who failed to negotiate elections and his sons. That would be compelling.

One more thing is that religion is noticeably absent. And before I someone calls me a terr'rist. I'm not talking (solely) about jihadists. It's incredibly difficult to describe politics in the region without describing religious motivations or the reactions there of. Even the secular states are secular partially out of a fear of encouraging religious extremists.

Islam says a lot about social justice particularly how the poor should be treated and in a lot of the political movements the show draws from somebody was making overt religious calls to action. And with all the opulence in the palace it seems hard to believe somebody on the ground hasn't given some sort of "Do you think God approves of that palace while children starve in the streets? Does God approve of these men taking any woman, your wives sisters, and mothers as they please?" speech.

Which goes back to the protesters. What do they want. Do they want reform or full ousting of the ruling family. How does religion play into their politics? How do they feel about the west and western culture?  If elections happened who would run amongst them? Do any of them see violence as a viable tool for political change? Are there any internal conflicts?  WHAT DO THEY WANT THEIR COUNTRY TO LOOK LIKE? Most of what we hear about them and their motivations comes second hand, from characters who view them as a problem that needs to be solved post haste. And that is a problem.

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