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Visit home not fun when father is old Middle East despot

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From left, Ashraf Barhom, Adam Rayner, Jennifer Finnegan, Anne Winters and Noah Silver in Tyrant.

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From left, Ashraf Barhom, Adam Rayner, Jennifer Finnegan, Anne Winters and Noah Silver in Tyrant.

Whether there's truth to the old saying "You can't go home again" is open to debate.

But the new FX drama Tyrant demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, why sometimes you shouldn't.

Tyrant, which premières Tuesday at 8 p.m. on FX Canada, tells the story of a man who has, for most of his adult life, avoided going home. And when events finally force him to return to the land of his birth, he quickly concludes that doing so was a very, very bad idea.

Tyrant follows the journey of Bassam (Barry) Al-Fayeed (played by Adam Rayner), a successful southern California pediatrician with a pretty blond wife and two average L.A.-raised teenagers. He also happens to be the son of a Middle Eastern dictator, but that's a messy biographical detail he has tried hard to leave in his past.

He has been in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for more than 20 years, and had fully intended never to return to his homeland -- the fictional oil-rich state of Baladi -- under any circumstances, but when news arrives that his nephew is about to wed, Barry's wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), pressures him to attend so the family can learn more about where he's from.

He refuses his father's offer of a private jet, thinking it's important to maintain a sense of modesty in the face of the opulence that awaits them in Baladi. But when they arrive at the airport, Barry learns that his father has purchased all the remaining seats on the commercial airliner they're about to board, effectively turning it into a private flight.

The kids happily grab a couple of spots in the first-class cabin, but Barry insists on proceeding to the economy-class seats for which they've paid. Before the jet has even left the gate, Barry regrets having succumbed to his wife's pressure.

And when they arrive in the Middle East, his unease intensifies. Baladi is in the grips of political unrest as public demands for democratic reform grow louder and the Al-Fayeed family's grip on power becomes less certain.

Bassam's father, Baladi's supreme ruler, is old and weak, and his older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), displays the sort of arrogance and recklessness that can only be cultivated while growing up in the shadow of a dictator.

He tries his very best to avoid it, but Bassam is immediately drawn into the delicate politics -- both national and familial -- of the situation back home. And as events unfold, quickly and with a couple of shocking twists, in the series première, it becomes clear that Barry, by re-entering Baladi after all these years, has crossed a border into a place from which it will be difficult -- emotionally, if not physically -- to escape.

Tyrant is fascinating for a couple reasons -- first, it immerses viewers in a setting they've only visited briefly in other TV series, and second, it asks some rather complicated questions about what it means to be a good person. Context, it turns out, plays a big part in filling in the shades between right and wrong.

In an interview last January during FX's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, executive producer Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) summed up the journey of Bassam/Barry this way:

"What does it mean to be a good man? I think that's at the centre of this. I mean, I think Barry Al-Fayeed is a guy who recognizes the price of admission, not just to this country (Baladi), but to the destiny of being an Al-Fayeed. And he so desperately wanted to be a good man that he turned his back on it and replanted himself in America where, in many ways, it's easier to be a good man, treating strep throat and coaching Little League."

Barry Al-Fayeed realized the American dream, and now he's being forced to confront the nightmare of his birthright.

Maybe you can go home again, but that doesn't mean you should.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 G9

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