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‘Tyrant’ makes history but we don’t know why yet

FX’s premiere of “Tyrant” is making history at 10 tonight. But then we’ve always known it would. It’s “why” it’s doing so that you won’t know after seeing just this evening’s episode.

It’s the first American television show to be concerned with an Arab-American returning to his native Middle Eastern country – the entirely fictional Abuddin – after spending the previous 19 years as a pediatrician in Pasadena, Calif., with a blond wife and two sullen and spoiled American teen kids.

Granted, the star of the series (Adam Rayner) is himself not Arab-American, but the actor playing his monster brother in Abuddin is an Israeli Arab. All I can frankly claim, at this point, is that the pilot you’ll see tonight is both fascinating and promising.

And one that could go very wrong very quickly.

Imagine an Arab-American Michael Corleone – smart, college-educated, admirable in all possible upper middle class ways – suddenly yanked back into the brutalizing, blood-soaked family business by family circumstance even though his corrupt father wanted nothing of the sort. That’s what happens this evening – a brilliant premise, I thought, for a TV series about a brutal Middle Eastern regime.

What we’re watching here is a humane and good American – a children’s doctor whose daily California worries involved when, if ever, one should take California’s Route 405 – and his family’s brutal dictatorship many thousands of miles away in the Middle East.

But in the great World Cup of contemporary international television, the yellow card went up on “Tyrant” long ago. The show’s pilot was originally supposed to have been directed by the great Ang Lee, no less, Oscar winner recently for “Life of Pi.” He bowed out of his major first TV gig early.

The show’s creator Gideon Raff was the creator of the Israeli TV series that was eventually turned into Showtime’s “Homeland,” one of the most praised TV shows of the past few decades. To see on American premium cable TV a series that asked us to sympathize, at least for a second, with an American military torture victim in Iran who was a secret terrorist spreading a prayer mat in his garage and facing Mecca as he prayed to Allah was an utterly amazing moment in contemporary television.

Raff has left the show, too, although he’s said to be on good terms with producer Howard Gordon, formerly of “Homeland” and “24.”

I’ve seen this evening’s pilot but I haven’t had time yet to watch the subsequent episodes FX was only able to offer online at the very end of last week. Frankly, then, I have no idea whether we’ll be watching the “Homeland”-ish internal agonies of an American forced into leading an old and brutal patriarchal dictatorship or one committed to Westernization and change.

It’s hard to think the latter will be the case given the title of the series.

There were plans once to film it in Morocco. It’s now being filmed in Israel, where, you’ll remember, the original series began on which “Homeland” was eventually based.

In the pilot, our Americanized pediatrician is both a clever and good man. The monster in the family is his older brother Jamal, who stayed back home while his father Westernized his economy – but not the society – as much as possible. As a boy, Jamal was berated by their tyrant father for dressing and acting “like a girl” while his younger brother silently and impenetrably looked on.

They are dramatic opposites now. Jamal has sex with a woman while her husband and baby son are forced to wait in the hallway just a few feet away with Jamal’s bodyguards. (A closed door is Jamal’s only concession to being human.) He races around in a sports car from which Aerosmith blares at top volume. He beats terrorists who threaten violence at his son’s wedding, the event that brought his pediatrician brother Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed home for the first time in 19 years.

Barry is the one who quietly, and quickly, solves the whole problem of terrorists ruining the wedding by telling his brother to invite a key leader from the other side and his family to the wedding. While he and his family are there at the celebration, he would never let anything happen to them.

Barry (note the familiarity of that first name) knows full well what he could be forced into. And he wants to get back to his Pasadena medical practice in a hurry. His family – especially his spoiled son getting his first taste of what real patriarchal privilege offers the relatives of royalty in this world – is beginning to enjoy the novelty of being related to a Middle Eastern dictator.

A stark and agonizing “Homeland” battle of values is possible in Bassam’s soul. But so, too, is a relentless Islamophobic fantasy parade of ugly stereotypes that could cause all sorts of people to label the show politically, socially and morally unclean.

As it is now, the soul of the show belongs to the two actors who represent a very strained brotherhood across a 7,000-mile distance – Rayner as Barry and Israeli Arab actor Ashraf Barhom as his monster brother Jamal whom Barry suspects of being insane. Barhom is a very good actor whose self-evident evasion of Western dentistry is only one indication of how American prime-time TV audiences are supposed to feel about him.

The two actors are superb in the pilot, as well as brilliantly directed by David Yates, who directed the final four films in the “Harry Potter” film series. The architectural grandeur and the life of Middle Eastern royal privilege are portrayed with exceptional, effortless conviction in the pilot.

What’s in the offing, then, after this evening is a TV show that could go either way, after opening up at a dramatic crossroads. We could either be watching one of the braver and more complex TV fantasies since “Homeland” showed us things we never expected to see. Or it could immerse us in a post-“24” fantasy of righteous torture and dimwitted teens as two of the most identifiable scourges of civilization.

I honestly didn’t have time last week to see which road “Tyrant” will take next week. But I do care.

The crossroads presented by this evening’s opening is dramatic enough in the life of any one TV series.