Posted by on June 24, 2014 in Blog

By Myles Teasley
Summer Intern, 2014

Take a deep breath and cross your fingers as FX’s new original series “Tyrant” premieres on Tuesday, June 24th. Just months after ABC’s “Alice in Arabia” got nixed for ‘insidious stereotyping’, this political drama follows Bassam ‘Barry’ Al-Fayeed, a California pediatrician and family man who fled his role as the son of an unpopular dictator in order to escape the brutal politics and intrigue.

In the series, he reluctantly ends his self-imposed exile and returns to his country for his nephew’s wedding where he and his family quickly become involuntary players in Abuddin’s “Game of Thrones” as the country slips slowly into instability.

Overall, there is almost as much to be excited about as there is to be worried. For starters, although the pilot was filmed in Morocco, the series was relocated to Tel Aviv, Israel. Not a problem by itself, but paired with the fact that the neither the lead actor, nor his mixed family, are played by actors of Arab descent, it begs the question: why?

It can’t be that there aren’t any; then again, I suppose we can let this oversight slide given that most of the rest of the cast is of Arab descent, something the casting director wanted, saying, “’Tyrant’ is so much about a zeitgeist, real-world topic that everyone wanted it to feel real.” That said, if realism is the goal, is using English the best way forward for a show set in the Middle East in light of successful shows like “The Americans” operating heavily in a foreign language?

Acclaimed American and Israeli directors Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff developed the series while on break from the wildly popular, but not uncontroversial, “Homeland”. Having the two on board bodes well for a successful series with commercial viability, but Homeland has in the past faced allegations of Islamophobia, Arab and Muslim stereotyping, pro-militarism, and has been implicated as a factor in why Americans support torture at higher rates than many countries.

To their credit, the creators seem to be trying to get ahead of some lingering concerns and have reportedly been in regular contact with the Muslims on Screen and Television (MOST) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. They have also hired a Palestinian filmmaker to serve as an on-set consultant. These outreach efforts might be paying off, as one Arab American activist, following a well attended roundtable discussion, noted, “In those 60 minutes, I noted more nuance when portraying the dictators than most major news networks have achieved in all their coverage.”

That’s not to say the show isn’t already without its detractors. After screening the pilot in Los Angeles, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said, “In . . . 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… even the ‘good’ Arab Muslims are bad.”

We’ll find out Tuesday night to what extent “Tyrant” dispels or reinforces negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. Knowing myself, I’ll tune in to watch, and I may even enjoy it to some extent. I’m rooting for it to succeed since American TV is overdue for a good, complex, show on the Middle East.

But it remains crucial for all of us as creators and receivers of media to be aware of what cultural theorist Stuart Hall called the “Reception Theory”, where television shows like “Homeland” and “Tyrant” not only reflect cultural and social anxieties at any given time, but also shape and reinforce them.

Following Jack Shaheen’s “Reel Bad Arabs,” I’m hoping that we’ll be able to chalk this one up on his list of net neutral or positive portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on screen. Perhaps it will surprise us with nuanced depictions that break Hollywood’s usually rigid (though improving) stereotyping.

But I’m not holding my breath.