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'Tyrant' review: Season 2 maintains the momentum

Adam Rayner as Barry in

Adam Rayner as Barry in "Tyrant."


WHEN|WHERE Second-season premiere Tuesday night at 10 on FX

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Caught while conspiring with the U.S. government to overthrow Jamal al-Fayeed (Ashraf Barhom), the newly installed dictator of Abuddin, Barry al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) -- Jamal's brother, who until returning to Abuddin had spent the preceding 20 years in the States -- has languished for four months in prison. And now, Jamal has sentenced him to die. Jamal is torn: He loves his brother, but his wife, Leila (Moran Atias) insists on the execution, even in the midst of a growing and complicated insurgency. Some members of the insurgency want Barry freed immediately.

MY SAY "Tyrant's" 2014 launch was preceded by the sort of anticipation any new show fronted by a pair of legendary producers -- Howard Gordon ("24") and Glenn Gordon Caron ("Moonlighting") -- might reasonably expect. And then -- ka-boom! -- came the show. Its pilot included a horrifying rape scene, a child (actor) killing someone, a few stock Middle Eastern villains, and an overall premise that appeared easily (or outrageously) invalidated by what was really going on in places like Syria, Egypt or Yemen.

The worst foot placed forward, "Tyrant" then did something most shows don't have enough sense to do: It backtracked. The characters were enriched, the stories strengthened, and "Tyrant's" fictional Abuddin (the show is filmed in Turkey) began to slowly accumulate a mantle of verisimilitude. By the end of the first season, the show had improved significantly, if not quite dramatically, and based on a viewing of the first two episodes, that trend continues.

What needed to be redressed has been -- most notably -- Barhom's Jamal. For the show's core brother-versus-brother theme to work, he couldn't be an unregenerate monster any more than Rayner's Barry could be a beatified saint. The show's producers and Barhom -- a good actor and quite possibly the real heart of "Tyrant" -- have actually managed to make him a conflicted human being, despite his crimes. And quite possibly a compelling one, too.

The insurgency story has also been deepened. "Tyrant" is clearly trying to understand the desperation and horror in places like Syria and Yemen without trivializing that desperation. Has it succeeded yet? Not completely, but -- while it's unclear any prime-time series with the possible exception of "Homeland" actually has -- at least the effort appears concerted and ongoing.


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