FX’s promising “Tyrant” and NBC’s trite “Taxi Brooklyn” represent the yin and yang, best and worst, of summer TV.
FX already premiered the year’s best new series to date with “Fargo,” but the cable network may have another winner with “Tyrant” (10-11:32 tonight), an intense new Middle East-set family and political drama.
But there’s some reason for hesitation in crowning “Tyrant” with superlatives: It’s from two of the producers of the increasingly disappointing “Homeland,” although neither one is the buck-stops-here “Homeland” showrunner, so maybe the wariness is unwarranted.
”Tyrant” gets off to an engrossing start as it melds family drama with political intrigue and a clash of cultures.
The series follows Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the younger son of a Middle East dictator who has lived in the United States for 20 years. He works as an emotionally constipated Los Angeles pediatrician who is reluctant to share his inner emotional strife – and damaged, dark childhood – with his wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan, “Better With You”).
Barry returns to his homeland, the fictional Abbudin, for his nephew’s wedding, bringing Molly and his two teenage children with him.
Flashbacks throughout the premiere episode offer some background on Barry and his older brother, the brutal and moody rapist Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), who is next in line for the presidency of Abbudin should something happen to their dictator dad.
In addition to the cultural tug of war Barry feels between his American life and his Abbudin upbringing, “Tyrant” sets up the culture clash for his family, who are accustomed to their American ways and find themselves fish-out-of-water in a new country.
The culture depicted in Abbudin seems to be a mix of several Middle Eastern countries The country is billed as hugely wealthy (a la Saudi Arabia), but other elements make it seem closer to Libya.
The pilot was written by Gideon Raff, who created the Israeli series that Showtime’s “Homeland” is based on (Mr. Raff is also a consultant on the American “Homeland”).
But Mr. Raff left “Tyrant” after the pilot over creative differences, according to a Hollywood Reporter story. “Tyrant” is now run by Howard Gordon, long-time showrunner of “24.”
Evidently there were differences over the direction of “Tyrant,” and the question of what the show will be after the pilot – A family drama? A political thriller? A little of both? – hangs over this first episode. That’s why there’s a hesitance to sing the show’s praises too loudly; it could all come crashing down as it goes along.
But through the first four episodes, “Tyrant” holds up pretty well.
The subsequent three episodes made available for review never quite match the urgency of the pilot but the writers balance the personal stories of Barry’s immediate family with the political drama of what’s essentially Abbudin’s royal court once Barry decides to stay and help govern his homeland.
The American family is used as a hook to draw American viewers in – actor Justin Kirk (“Weeds”) also shows up as a representative of the American embassy in Abbudin – but the focus shifts sharply to Abbudin’s internal political strife in episodes that deal with homegrown terrorists and the 20-year anniversary of a gas attack by the country’s ruler that killed 20,000 citizens.
Whether American viewers are willing to stick with “Tyrant,” particularly given the depressing tone of news coming out of the Middle East these days, remains an open question. But in its early episodes, “Tyrant” is as engaging when it focuses on family drama as when it veers more in the direction of taut, serialized, political thriller.
From the potentially sublime to the definitely ridiculous, NBC’s “Taxi Brooklyn” (10 p.m. Wednesday, WPXI) is pretty much as silly as they come.
A French co-production shot in Brooklyn, “Taxi Brooklyn” stars Chyler Leigh (“Grey’s Anatomy”) as Detective Cat Sullivan. You know she’s rebellious because she wears her hair short, drives like a maniac and gets called a menace by her partner.
After chasing a speeding taxi over Brooklyn streets, Sullivan is put on foot patrol by her captain (James Colby).
She winds up teaming with that charming French-African taxi driver, Leo (Jacky Ido), after a period of wariness about his motives. (Again, she shows she’s tough by hurting his pinky finger when he hits on her and calling him “just another [expletive]-bag [expletive]-hole.”)
She needs a pair of wheels because she can’t drive on the job herself and he needs ... what exactly? He seems a little smitten with her, so maybe that’s why he’s always giving her rides, offering psychological profiles of suspected perps and essentially acting as her de facto partner. Also, his immigration status is dicey, and Sullivan has some influence over a cop who would otherwise turn Leo in.
That’s the nutty premise of this series, which is based on the Luc Besson-scripted 1998 French film “Taxi,” which was remade with the same title as a Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah vehicle in 2004.
Wednesday’s series premiere, written by Gary Scott Thompson (“Las Vegas,” 2008’s “Knight Rider”), is full of cliches and predictable plot turns, including two potential ongoing arcs: Turns out both Sullivan and Leo have Daddy Issues – hers is dead and she’s hunting his killer while butting heads with her mother (Ally Walker, “Sons of Anarchy”), and his father went missing long ago.
But those are in the background; the emphasis is on the murder of the week and Sullivan gets an assist from Dr. Monica Pena (Jennifer Esposito, late of CBS’s “Blue Bloods”) on those cases .
While Ms. Leigh’s character is a pastiche of cliched archetypes, Mr. Ido’s taxi-driving scoundrel is a charmer. But it will take more than charm to watch “Taxi Brooklyn” and not feel like you’re being taken for a ride you’ve been on too many times before.
A version of the “Tyrant” review first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.