‘Tyrant’: Soapy Drama Without Much Pop

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Back for a third season, Tyrant is making another mighty effort to overcome its by now perennial shortcomings as a soapy drama set against the backdrop of Middle Eastern politics and culture. Even with the introduction of Chris Noth as a tough U.S. general leading troops and pitching woo at a main character, I’m not sure Tyrant was worth bringing back for this additional attempt to turn it into quality television.

The central conflicts remain the same. Brothers Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) and Jamal Al-Fayeed (Ashraf Barhom) still compete to rule the fictional country of Abuddin. The end of the second season found Jamal wounded, and now Barry — always the reluctant leader, whom we know is destined to lead; an inner conflict that has become an outer bore for viewers — moves into a leadership position that’s tenuous at best because so many people — including Jamal’s wife, Leila (Moran Atias) — want to seize more power.

Barry is pushing democracy over a competing caliphate cadre, so we’re on his side, but the show doesn’t make it easy: Barry has always been portrayed as a conflicted, sometimes indecisive intellectual who’d rather ponder these questions philosophically, when what it needed is firm action. It’s a frustration felt not only by Leila, but also by Barry’s own wife, Molly, played with pursed-lips frustration by Jennifer Finnigan.

Since it premiered, Tyrant has labored with great earnestness to avoid making the show Western-oriented, filling its cast with nonwhite American actors and making efforts to portray events in the Middle East, both political and cultural, with degrees of subtlety. The problem with the series isn’t the casting or its philosophical underpinnings, though — its chief flaw remains one of pacing. Long scenes of dialogue and debate become wearisome; they’re occasionally broken up by moments of romance and/or action (there’s a big shootout and a kidnapping in the second episode, for example).

Too often, Tyrant plays like an afternoon soap opera, with two characters standing toe-to-toe uttering impassioned words, and then one exits, leaving the remaining figure to stare pensively, melodramatically emphasizing the immense import of what has just been said. Except we didn’t need this sort of overwrought underscoring — we get what was going on, most of the time well before the characters themselves realize what’s happening. That’s no way to run a show that wants to be a suspenseful drama.

Tyrant airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.