In HBO's "House of Saddam," the story of the reign of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein becomes a soap opera of world-altering proportions.
This four-hour miniseries (9-11 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 14), a BBC-HBO co-production, presents Saddam Hussein (Igal Naor) as the Tony Soprano of the Middle East, complete with a meddlesome mother who lectures him about his rude teenage son passing gas. When Saddam sasses her -- asking if he should beat the boy as he was beaten by his stepfather -- mama shoots back, "You have too much to say to your mother."
But learning Saddam was a mama's boy who never knew his father can't begin to explain away his evil deeds, including his casual murder of a best friend.
"The man who can sacrifice even his best friend is a man without weakness," Saddam explains in the bloody aftermath. "In the eyes of my enemies, I am stronger now."
"House of Saddam" offers a fascinating but limited portrait of the Iraqi tyrant. It also reminds viewers that America was once allied with Hussein against Iran. (Hussein takes Iraq into battle against Iran after overthrowing his predecessor.)
- When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 14, HBO
The miniseries also gets in a few digs at how Americans can behave like those we abhor by way of a scene showing Saddam ordering soldier's coffins hidden from public view, saying, "Mothers do not need to be reminded of their sacrifice." (In 2003 the Pentagon banned photography of American flag-draped service members' coffins returning from Iraq.)
In Sunday's premiere, "House of Saddam" chronicles Hussein's rise to power, his war against Iran and the first U.S. invasion. Next week's conclusion recounts the more recent war against America and its allies.
Unlike so many stories, which could do with less time, "House of Saddam" cries out to be longer. To make clear all the familial relationships -- an important component of this story that's muddied early in this abridgement -- the script by director Alex Holmes and Stephen Butchard needed to go back to Hussein's childhood and better establish those relationships and re-establish the identities of Hussein's sons every time the story jumps forward in time and new actors take over the roles.
The miniseries is filled with a cast of mostly unknowns, the one exception is Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo ("24," "House of Sand and Fog"), who plays Hussein's first wife, Sajida.
Her brother is Hussein's military leader, just one of the many nepotistic, messy relationships in Hussein's life (his ill-behaved kids are sometimes a sociopathic mess).
The unnecessary drama Hussein's relatives generate makes American political family drama (think: the Clintons) look "Brady Bunch"-simple in comparison.
Although somewhat structurally flawed, "House of Saddam" still manages to tell a complicated, historical story as an entertaining, political melodrama. It's "Dallas" in the desert with oil as the common commodity.