The First TV Drama About an Arab American Family Debuts—And it's Got Some Problems
Anyone who grew up with an Arab father knows how tyrannical Middle Eastern men can be: they talk louder than anyone else in the room, make inappropriate jokes at the dinner table, and their flatulence will clear a room with after eating too much lamb (but only after all the guests have left). That’s my dad, at least. He left Detroit for Los Angeles at the age of 21, cutting himself off from the Syrian and Lebanese community he grew up in—trying not to follow his father’s footsteps of working in the Ford factory. He married a blonde beauty, had two kids, became active in his church and still hangs his U.S. flag out at dawn and puts it away at dusk daily. Yet, even after all that, he’s still a fish out of water in our Californian suburb and looks most at home in the presence of other boisterous Arabs.
My dad’s not the only Arab to leave his family and try to start anew. On the new show Tyrant, which premiered its first episode on FX last night, protagonist Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) flees his fictional Middle Eastern country “Abbudin” as a teenager, but for very different reasons. His father not only dominated the dinner table, but the whole country as—no spoiler alert here—a tyrant. Having emigrated to the U.S., Barry’s now an assimilated thirty-something pediatrician who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles with his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan)—a white woman from the U.S.—and their two teenagers, Emma (Anne Winters) and Sammy (Noah Silver).
Tyrant is a big deal because it’s the nation’s first dramatic show about an Arab American family, and the first series to air on U.S. television that is set and filmed in the Middle East. (They shot the pilot in Morocco but, due to a lack of set resources, moved production to Israel.) The creators also worked on 24 and Homeland, neither of which had a good track record in terms of fair and creative representations of Arabs and Muslims. To their credit, they communicated with and received feedback from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Muslims on Screen and Television. But despite the outreach, the resulting show is far from great. The Center for American-Islamic Relations issued a statement panning the pilot. "In the pilot of FX's Tyrant, Arab Muslim culture is devoid of any redeeming qualities and is represented by terrorists, murderous children, rapists, corrupt billionaires, and powerless female victims," said CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper in the statement. "In Tryant, even the 'good' Arab Muslims are bad."
This new show comes amidst FX’s attempt to reinvent itself. Currently third in cable networks amongst 18-49 year olds, FX is counting on this series being a great success. After outbidding HBO for Tyrant, FX picked up the series for 10 episodes and budgeted more than $3 million per episode. It’s been called the Middle Eastern version of The Godfather or The Sopranos. What makes those shows work is that you believe the characters’ Italian-ness: their culture drips off of them into their relationships, their communication and mannerisms. Yeah, okay, their business is shady – but they’re a family, an Italian family. In that way, Tyrant misses the mark because the Arabness is completely absent from the Al-Fayeed nuclear family. That’s problem number one with the series: Barry is too assimilated. He jogs in the morning listening to an iPod in stylish running clothes. He’s graceful. And pretty. It doesn’t help that he’s played by a blue-eyed white guy who has admitted he has no Middle Eastern roots. The creators justify his whiteness by making his character’s mother British. So we have an assimilated Arab character played by a white guy, who resembles Rob Lowe playing Sam Seaborn, the White House Communications Director, on The West Wing. He’s just uptight and bland.
Even if Barry has tried with all his might to leave his past behind, there has to be some remnant of it—aside than nightmarish flashbacks that he hides from everyone. Otherwise, what makes this an Arab story? It seems like the only part of his Arabness that’s going to be revisited is in the form of tyrant-ness, which is not only problematic but uncreative. Even if (unfortunately) he speaks with a completely American accent, he should at least talk with his hands once in a while or whisper an Arabic expression under his breath.
Where is this Orientalist dune? Nowhere! "Tyrant" is set in a fictional Middle Eastern country that's a mishmash of cultures.
Problem #2: The story hinges on the plot device that Barry needs to go back to his homeland after years of living in the United States because his wife Molly wants them both to attend a relative’s wedding. Molly points out that she and the kids have never been to the country where he was born and she thinks it would be good for him to make amends with his father. That whole plan is hard to swallow. This should have been flushed out more and could have been the whole pilot: to go or not to go? Instead, it’s just presented as fact that the whole family must return to the country Barry fled from for no good reason.
TV series that move too fast crash and burn. Those that take their time to establish relationships and communicate important events subtly, but strikingly, last several seasons. Last night’s pilot could have been five episodes. I got a copy of an early script of the show, and many of the important relationship-establishing points did not make it to the screen. The chemistry in Barry’s nuclear family feels shallow in the pilot. For example, in the original script Emma, a budding feminist, had a poster on her bedroom wall that had the good ole’ slogan: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Sammy, who is in the closet about being gay, was also an avid jock in the early script, which allowed for his dad to wake him up at 5AM to see if he wanted to go jogging with him (now that’s something I could see an Arab dad doing). Sammy asked him if he was crazy and rolled over. This was such a short sweet moment between father and son, but it set up the viewer to understand their relationship. In the first draft of this script, once they arrive in the Middle East, Barry winds up slapping his son and it doesn't feels jarringly out of character—like it should. Because the initial connection got omitted from the script, their relationship just appeared strained on screen.
Family relationships that could be nuanced—like with children Sammy and Emma—instead get the short shrift.
The creators are intentionally staying away from implicating religious groups or sects, or specifics of one country, even though the pilot was inspired by Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. But, as a result, we find ourselves in an imagined Arabia, by the sea, with mountains, sand, and skyscrapers. By not choosing a specific country, everything’s mishmashed. No one can really speak Arabic because the language is unique to different regions within the Arab League, as are customs and the way the Arab Spring and resistance movements act. Aside from being Orientalist, this poses a problem for the script given this is a Middle Eastern political drama.
And I haven’t even gotten to the over-the-top stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims–and this show has them all: billionaires, bombers, and oppressed, voiceless women. How can the creators claim that the show is authentic and nuanced while reinforcing old formulaic tactics? Granted, tyrants have to be terrible by definition, but the creators can’t have their baklava and eat it too.
Don’t get me wrong: I hope this show can turn itself around. We need more people taking risks and trying to represent complex stories about Middle Eastern characters and themes. If this one flops, after Alice in Arabia got killed, who knows when someone will take another stab at it.
Here’s my advice for making Tyrant better:
1. Stop representing the West as non-emotional, powerful, and democratic, and the East as emotional, despotic, and chaotic.
2. Don’t make this another Not Without My Daughter. The story of the Middle Eastern man who goes back to his homeland with his family and then makes them stay there against their will has been done. We don’t need a TV version: this dominant narrative already runs deep enough in the U.S. psyche.
3. Make the oppositional movement more than a terrorist group and implement female leadership. Tyrant features one character who is a writer and leader of the opposition movement—he looks like the character with the most integrity. Let’s hope they don’t put blood on his hands, too. His “beautiful and intelligent” wife needs to be a key leader in the movement as well.
4. Give women agency. The Muslim women are quiet and abused. Even the American lead Molly reminds me of the blonde marionette in the Direct TV commercials, obsessed with trying to get her husband’s attention and figure out what he’s thinking. She’s a doctor back home. She can’t be that naïve or needy—at least not all the time. If this is going to be a hit, the women need to have dynamic voices.
5. Cut the gratuitous rape scenes. One in five women in U.S. colleges will experience sexual assault, and while that doesn’t mean one in five men will perpetuate it—we have plenty of sexual violence on our own soil and don’t need to see it exoticized. We didn’t need the scene in the pilot where a villain fingers a bride on her wedding night to prove she was a virgin—we already got that he’s an Arab baddie during his first rape scene of the episode.
6. Make the teenagers grapple with their Arab American identities. These are the first mixed-heritage Arab American teenagers in a drama on U.S. television. Amazing! What does it mean to be Arab and American especially when you’re your dad is about to take power of a country? Someone has to be real in this series—these two have the best chance. What an opportunity for a coming-of-age story. The audience doesn’t need to be teenagers to identify with it – we were all teenagers once.
7. Dance the dubke again. Weddings are joyous celebrations and Arab weddings are a million times that. The dubke is a traditional folk dance that everyone joins in at weddings, danced in a circle. I’ve never seen such a sad dubke as the one in the pilot, complete with gunshots and violent flashbacks. Give it another go: at the least we deserve an authentic dubke.
Stephanie Abraham is a fourth-generation Arab American, who is also Irish, Scotish, English and French. She’s a new mom to a spunky pup named Malika, Arabic for “queen.” Follow her at stephanieabraham.com.
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