I have to confess that an earlier draft of this post included a much more aggressive and pessimistic lede about Israel’s newest entry into the prestige TV canon. I had this whole irreverent and sarcastic thing going throughout the piece, where I made a bunch of assumptions about whether a new show from the creators of “Fauda” could accurately portray another Middle Eastern culture. I was all set to publish it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being a bit unreasonable. It’s never a good idea to judge a book by its cover, and I certainly wouldn’t be fair in my analysis if I did so now, even if that cover has been pretty racist in the past.
The new show, “Tehran,” takes the action out of the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank and thrusts it into a novel setting: Iran. It tells the tale of an intrepid Iranian-born Israeli spy sent deep into enemy territory (the eponymous city of Tehran, apparently) to stop the Islamic Republic’s devious plots to build, and presumably use, a nuclear weapon. Along the way, our brave heroine will wrestle with demons both physical and mental as she bluffs, beats, and hacks (of course she’s a computer hacker) her way into Iran’s most sensitive state secrets, outsmarting her enemies and saving Israel — and the world — from Iranian-concocted chaos and catastrophe.
The trailer hits all the familiar beats of a TV spy thriller: chases, betrayals, executions, etc. It also leans heavily into Iranian savagery in the first thirty seconds. As our hero arrives back in Tehran for the first time since childhood, we see her and a cab driver discuss a public hanging that is taking place in the square (something which rarely happens in the Islamic Republic these days). It’s a not-so-subtle reminder to both our heroine and the viewers that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Tehran is a dark and dangerous place.
Not surprisingly, the Israeli press has been gushing about the show’s brilliance. The reviewers are uniformly impressed with the alleged accuracy of Iranian life portrayed in the series, which premiered domestically last week. According to the Jerusalem Post, everything about the show was “extensively researched.” Haaretz, Israel’s most prominent left-leaning outlet, published a glowing review at the time of the premiere, calling the main protagonist “brilliant” and the script “more intelligent than most of those you’ve seen in similar shows lately.” This week, Haaretz ran an interview with the creator of “Fauda” and “Tehran,” Moshe Zonder, in which they praised his extensive efforts to “sketch the most accurate picture possible of the city beyond the proverbial hills of darkness.”
According to the interview, “one of the primary objectives of ‘Tehran’ was to counter the negative image of Iran as a country whose sole goal is to destroy Israel.” (Ironic, then, that the plot seems very obviously centered around sending an undercover agent to prevent just that.) In seeking to create an authentic atmosphere while filming in Athens, the show employed a number of Iranian exiles to work on the series, including both actors from the United States and Europe, as well as migrants who are currently stranded in Greece.
As far as I can tell, the Iranian media seems mostly uninterested in the series. A few Iranian outlets, including Javan, Hamshahri, and Mashregh, had brief writeups at the beginning of June in response to the debut of the show’s trailer that described the show as the “latest Mossad war against Iran.” In international Persian media, Radio Farda had a more in-depth piece in November of last year featuring Navid Negahban, one of the Iranian-American leads. The London-based website Kayhan Life (which, significantly, is not the Iranian newspaper of the same name), ran a short piece around the same time, noting that the series had “angered” an Iranian newspaper (coincidentally, the Iran-based Kayhan). The Iranian article was not linked, however, and I wasn’t able to find the original in any archives.
Candidly, I don’t have high hopes for “Tehran.” The plot might be brilliant, the acting may very well be superb, and I’m sure that the production values will be sky-high. But Western attempts to portray Iran fairly without relying on stereotypes of the Islamic Republic (or just Islam, in general) rarely go well (see Argo).
It’s worth remembering that television programs like “Tehran” are never just vectors of cheap entertainment. They can, and often do, have real political consequences. A generation of Americans spent several seasons watching Jack Bauer on “24” torture [mostly Arab] terrorists and thought, “That’s how it’s done.” Around the same time, audiences adopted fantasies about how politics take place by watching the fictitious presidency of a Good and Decent man on “The West Wing.” Without the mythmaking of television, Donald Trump would not be president today.
Based purely on pedigree and a recently signed distribution deal with Apple TV, “Tehran” seems poised to introduce millions of new people in Israel and around the world to a fictionalized version of life and politics in Iran. Let’s hope they do it responsibly.