Tyrants on Television

With a brutal civil war in Syria, an Islamist army marauding across Iraq, Israel and Gaza trading rockets, Egypt simmering, and Jordan the only sane oasis in a crescent of Arab countries, why not a TV series that can pull us into the action?

This spring an ad campaign aimed to hook a lot of people like me: A new, controversial, "not to be missed" cable show would debut in June. Soon rave reviews from advance showings were already in the media. It was about the Middle East -- it was even being filmed in the Middle East -- and it would fictionalize the Arab spring and the rulers it overthrew: Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi and their ilk. The storyline concentrated on one fictional country called Abbudin and the tyrannical Al Fayeed family that controlled it. The show promised violence, sex, intrigue, politics breathtaking scenery and a window into the modern Middle East.

It even had a tantalizing name: Tyrant.

The premise alone set networks scrambling to buy it. Showtime and HBO pursued it but in the end, FX (an affiliate of Fox) won the series. The producers originally recruited Ang Lee (The Life of Pi) to direct but he later cancelled and was replaced by David Yates (Harry Potter). The writers were Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff who collaborated on Showtime's popular Homeland. Gordon was also a producer in the drama series 24. The hype this spring was clear: Tyrant was guaranteed to be a hit.

In the pilot episode it takes little time before the patriarch-tyrant of the Al Fayeed clan (Abbudin's president) dies unexpectedly. This leaves two sons: Jamal Al Fayeed and Bassam (or Barry) Al Fayeed. The first is a brutal rapist and the second, "Barry," fled this insane family as a teen and now lives in Pasadena, California, where he works as a pediatrician. During his father's funeral, the not-so-innocent Barry decides to remain in the country to help guide it along with his ruthless brother Jamal. Did I mention that Jamal almost dies in a car crash racing his $100k Ferrari? And next to him is a poor peasant woman he's been raping for a few months. She dies in the crash; unfortunately Jamal survives.

After the first episode I had one of those moments where I ran for the iPad and immediately fired up Wikipedia just to confirm my hunch. This wasn't a fictional country. This was Syria. The president dies (Hafez al-Assad) and because his playboy son (Bassel al-Assad) kills himself in a car crash six years earlier (driving a Maserati), the family recruits his younger son, Bashar al-Assad -- you guessed it, a physician -- to step in and lead. Barry's TV wife is from Southern California; Bashar's wife is from London. Barry. Bashar. The "fiction" here is very thin indeed.

When I remembered that Gideon Raff was Israeli and I found out that the series was being filmed in Tel Aviv, I had to pause. Wait. Is this dramatic fiction or a worldview, an interpretation of reality given to us from one perspective in one particular country?

Reviewers have been quick to point this out. We've seen the usual complaints about narrative weaknesses (do all women from Southern Californian have to be skinny, blonde and stupidly naïve?). And then there are the incessant rape scenes that Maureen Ryan at The Huffington Post excoriated nicely ("Tyrant's Rape Clichés Are Just The Last Straw.")

But there is still something more deeply troubling. Tyrant is trading in gross stereotypes. Watching this show begins to shape your understanding of Arab society: volatile, poor, angry, and brutal -- and led by crazed rulers who lavish money on themselves, rape women (regularly), and kill anyone in their way. I quit counting how many people get shot in the head -- including children. And when you learn that this script is coming out of Israel, well, it makes you wonder. The tyrant Jamal is actually a stereotype out of some Israeli nightmare.

Which makes me wonder about other things. Does the media reflect the values at work in our society or does the media contribute to shaping those values? After 9/11 we all heard a lot about the war on terror and sleeper cells. What is the relationship between those ideas and the series Homeland where an American soldier returns home after many years in captivity by a Muslim militant called Abu Nazir? Has Homeland shaped what we think about the world or does Homeland reflect what we already think? It's probably both but I'm beginning to believe that the scale is tipping toward the former.

Which is a troubling question for anyone who watches Tyrant. It is impossible to have an accurate, nuanced understanding of the Arab world and be devoted to this series. It's values and stereotypes will seep into your thinking and unwittingly you begin to think like a few of those Israelis on the street in Tel Aviv who truly believe Arab leaders are like Jamal. Don't get me wrong. The Arabs have their own stereotypes of Israelis and these appear in their media. But Tyrant is being served up by Fox to millions of Americans.

So enough. Perhaps it is time for us to call out these productions for what they are. Clichés. Misrepresentations. Unhelpful. Wrong. Corrupting. Until we recognize what we're ingesting and what it is doing to us, we become victims of someone else's distorted worldview.

Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Wheaton College in Chicago, IL. He writes extensively on the Middle East and has traveled to countries from Iraq to Libya frequently. Syria is also one of his favorite places -- when it isn't destroying itself in civil war. www.garyburge.org.