Is FX ready to have grown-up conversations?

Every Tuesday night at 10 p.m., one or two TV networks in the US are bound to focus on Middle Eastern tension and conflicts. The usual suspects are, of course, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Now FX will be vying to take part in the conversation with it’s newest original series “Tyrant”. This is a pretty ambitious move for a channel whose claim to fame is that “FX has the movies.” For all of that trying though, will “Tyrant” contribute any valuable insight or commentary on its subject matter?

Contentious social and political issues are not new territory for FX. Many of the network’s original drama series have had major plot points, if not their entire premises, on hot-button topics. “The Shield” had gang violence and police corruption. “The Bridge” personalizes the dangers of trying to enforce the law along the US-Mexico border. “Sons of Anarchy” looks at all of the above through the lens of the outlaws profiting from the illicit gun and drug trades. So with over ten years of experience, FX should be experts by now at developing material that maturely examines the big questions that face our society. Right? No, actually not at all. Both FX’s broadcasting history and “Tyrant’s” unique subject matter far from guarantee any lasting depth in the plot.

The best estimation we have for how “Tyrant” might progress is “Sons of Anarchy”, which happens to be one of FX’s most popular program to date. Both shows center around a protagonist that finds himself involved in a violent power structure, by virtue of the fact that his family created that system. Thus the viewer has a character with whom they can mull over the dilemmas plot presents.

Similar mopey protagonists aside, “Sons of Anarchy” is a perfect TV cautionary tale all on its own. The premise is noble enough; Jax Teller is conflicted over his biker club selling weapons to street gangs. Through dealings with triads, cartels, and corrupt cops, the show has found many ways of asking, “Can criminal violence ever be solved by more violence?” Yet you would be hard-pressed to pick up that message from recent episodes.

Season six most of all exemplified this muddled storytelling, taking “Sons of Anarchy” from an uninteresting drama to distasteful ratings bait. The season premier ends with a devastating scene, a school shooting perpetrated with a gun sold by the titular club. Needless to say, when I saw this play out on the show, I was horrified. That said, I had some hope as well. I allowed myself to believe that “Sons of Anarchy” was taking a hard line on its subject material, and Jax Teller would be torn apart by what his inaction had allowed to happen. What the entire situation turned into, however, was a device for introducing that season’s nemesis. Yes, by the end of season six, the Sons were out of the gun trade, but the why had been lost well before in a mess of additional murders, brothel scenes, and inter-gang business deals. While every character seemed unhappy about the massacre they had facilitated, they went about their violent business with little pause for another twelve episodes. “Sons of Anarchy”, had the perfect opportunity to create a compelling discussion, but instead went with flashy plot twists and glamorized violence.

So why is “Tyrant”, being set in a vastly different culture half a world away, at risk of falling into the same trap? Much like domestic gun violence, Americans’ opinions are sharply divided on Middle Eastern politics. The show’s creators are no doubt aware of this fact and have acted accordingly. The story is set in a fictional Arab nation, and very little mention is made of any actual governments or sects. The move is understandable, as using a specific current crisis for entertainment would invite a strong backlash. The lack of historical context for this fictional location and political climate poses a potential threat to the plot, however. Abbudin could amount to nothing more than a new exotic backdrop for another series that is described far more often as “seductive” than “compelling”.

In the three episodes aired so far, “Tyrant” is already using plot elements that may amount to little more than sources of scandalous tension between its characters. Five major players have been shown to be involved in sexual relationships, past or present, that would be likely be decried in their surroundings. Albeit there is still time to put a real message behind the experiences of these characters.

A prime example is Sammy, Bassam’s son whose homosexuality may not be known to anyone but his sister. He quickly starts a secret relationship with Abdul, whose family has managed security for the Al Fayeed’s for generations. In episode three, Sammy asks Abdul if he has come out to anyone. Abdul shrugs off the question, but Sammy is visibly concerned over the fact that lying about his sexual orientation may be a necessity. Hopefully through this character, we can see an emotional struggle over whether his luxurious life in Abbudin trumps the human need for tolerance. On the other hand, this forbidden tryst could become nothing more than a font of plot twists and shouting matches perfect for preview sound bytes.

Obviously I am aggravated and captivated by the crises that face the Middle East. That’s not an uncommon feeling. I would love nothing more than for a clear answer to solve all of those problems, but I don’t expect “Tyrant” to provide it. It is, after all, a fictional series meant to entertain. What FX can do through the show is showcase the human element in the conflicts that many Americans only see through several degrees of separation. Autocrats, power-hungry generals, and militant rebels have the same complex emotional experiences as any human. Showing those experiences can galvanize audiences to gain a better understanding of the people involved in struggles that we have little personal grasp on. “Tyrant” doesn’t have to be about a real country, but it should be about realistic people in the real world.

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