The current hot trend in prestige cable drama is the anthology series, which tells a complete story over the course of eight(ish) episodes, followed by an ending. So with audiences being shown the pleasures of a limited series, what place is there for slower, more open-ended cable series, like FX Tyrant?
Tyrant, which premieres tonight on FX, is the latest in the string of cable dramas that have come out of the gate as near duds, following most recently AMC's derided computer-building bore Halt and Catch Fire and Revolutionary War snoozer Turn (which, to be fair, while never totally catching on with critics or audiences, is at least getting a second season).
Now, Tyrant has myriad issues, first and foremost of which being a lack of any compelling acting. Lead Adam Rayner—playing the son of a fictional Middle Eastern, well, tyrant, who has chosen to raise his family in America—is perhaps the worst offender. Aside from the fact that the show, as Daniel Fienberg wrote, can't really justify the fact that it cast a white actor to play its half-Arab lead, Rayner's face is mostly a blank slate. He's vaguely conflicted but basically a good guy. Whereas his family that never left the Middle East are often presented as barbaric "others," especially his loose cannon brother, he is the humane Westerner.
But the biggest problem is that the show just feels like it's treading water. This, on one hand, is a problem that's specific to Tyrant, which doesn't even fully embrace some of the soapier elements it sets up in its pilot. As James Poniewozik wrote in his review at Time: "The plot in the early episodes drags because it turns on a question–will Barry and his family stay?–that has to be answered 'Yes' or you have no show."
On the other hands, Tyrant's annoying slowness seems to be a symptom of shows trying to make their way into the fraternity of roundly applauded shows, which take some time to get into a rhythm before settling into a groove. Even if Tyrant isn't specifically going for emulation of something like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, FX could very well likely feels like it can get away with early, plodding episodes with the great, slow shows as an excuse. FX should know better, though. As should Tyrant's creative team, which has some Homeland pedigree in Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff. Homeland was best in its first season when it was all about one question: whether or not Brody was a terrorist. Meanwhile, FX's best drama, in our opinion, The Americans, avoids falling into this trap by having a mission-of-the-week-type structure, keeping the major arcs moving via a series of clearly defined smaller arcs. It's a structure that sustained TV dramas though the 2000s — think shows like E.R. or The Practice or even something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer — but as HBO and AMC made the TV landscape safer for slower, more gradually unfurling stories, they also opened the door for slower, more gradually unfurling stories of dull men whose stories are unfocused and uncompelling.
This year, FX also aired Fargo, one of these newfangled anthology series—really, they are miniseries with an extra dose of prestige. What made shows like Fargo and True Detective so entertaining was that as highfalutin as they were, they had to get something done in a limited amount of episodes. There's no urgency to something like Tyrant, and that's the problem. That's not to say every show should be an anthology series, but there's an importance to the trend. Audiences—critical and otherwise—are interested in momentum.