And what folks they are: Barry's dad, Khaled (Nasser Faris), the president-for-life of fictional Abbudin; his British mom, Amira (Alice Krige); and his older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), a rapist and race-car fan with a distinct Sonny Corleone vibe.
Barry, a pediatrician who's been living in sunny California with his physician wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), and their two kids, Sammy (Noah Silver) and Emma (Anne Winters), hasn't been home in 20 years, but his reluctance to return for his nephew's wedding proves justified in tonight's 90-minute premiere.
Inspired in part by the personal history of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as well as by "The Godfather," the Morocco-filmed pilot of "Tyrant" is initially as seductive as Abbudin is to Barry's wife and son (his daughter, who gets her news from the Internet, is inclined to focus more on her grandfather's atrocities than on the lavishness of his lifestyle).
"Tyrant" looks great. The cast is excellent. Rayner, an unlikely choice - as a non-Arab - to play the potential heir to a Mideast dynasty, is nevertheless believable as a man trying to straddle two worlds. I was amused by Justin Kirk as a U.S. diplomat who seems, at least in the pilot, to have wandered out of a Graham Greene novel.
But like Abbudin, "Tyrant" is not paradise for everyone, and its dissident characters (who conveniently speak English) don't get the nuance granted to even Jamal.
At some point, the show's Israeli creator, Gideon Raff ("Homeland"), ended his day-to-day involvement with "Tyrant," now being filmed outside Tel Aviv, reportedly over creative differences with showrunner Howard Gordon ("Homeland," "24").
This might or might not explain why three subsequent episodes were only made available to critics within the past few days. Less dazzling than the pilot, which I first saw in January, they try to engender sympathy for Jamal, using it to explain Barry's willingness to stay in a situation more and more beyond his control.
The family soap opera might be more fun if the stakes weren't so high, the politics more riveting if Barry's reform attempts weren't so obviously doomed.
Still one of the best new shows of the summer, "Tyrant" only disappoints because I had hoped for more. And I still do.