Saturday, October 3, 2020

Tehran paints a complex picture of an Israeli spy trapped in the capital of Iran

© Apple TV+

‘Tehran’ has something that feels like it’s almost at the point of something great.
by Jeremy Fogelman

Tehran is a new Israeli show on Apple TV Plus created by Moshe Zonder, who previously worked as a producer on the show Fauda, which was ostensibly a show about Israel-Palestine tensions and the people on both sides, although it often dipped too heavily into overly action-heavy scenes and a few too many characters. Tehran is far more focused, carefully introducing characters of import over time.

The show dropped the first three episodes at once, “Emergency Landing in Tehran”, “Blood on Her Hands”, and “Jasmine’s Girl”, so there will be spoilers for those three episodes here. The first episode is a bit of something with a “heist” vibe as we see a team of Israeli spies attempt to infiltrate the electrical grid in Tehran to allow a bombing of Iranian reactors. The main spy on the ground is Tamar (Niv Sultan), who can pass for Iranian, which makes sense, as we discover later that her mother fled during the uprisings of the late 70s.

At the same time, we follow the Iranian security service trying to figure out what’s going on and tracking down the spies, led by Faraz Kamali (famed Persian character actor Shaun Toub). Faraz is given additional depth beyond simply wanting to defend his country as his wife heads to France to get treatment for a serious illness -- the two have a complicated relationship because he must stay behind to address the security intrusions.

Tamar switches places with Zhila, a local worker at the electrical plant, who is desperate to flee and leave everything behind. We discover why, when Tamar is assaulted by Zhila’s boss and inadvertently kills him. So Tamar tries to get help from local asset Masoud (another great character actor Navid Negahban, who’s been in everything too) -- but gets into some interesting conflicts as Masoud is perhaps a more unethical sort than Tamar is willing to interact with.

©Apple TV+

Masoud is competent, but makes mistakes, as we see Faraz’s team slowly begin to figure out what happened. It’s always useful to have protagonists and antagonists with competence, and here although Tamar is clearly painted as the “hero”, Faraz isn’t painted as a monster or evil -- a good change from the “we’re terrorists but complex” people in Fauda.

The third episode adds some much needed complexity to the world, as we see groups of Iranian protesters at odds with each other, both convinced they are virtuous and the other side terrible. This has Tamar’s aunt Arezoo, who stayed behind in Iran and converted in Islam, willing to help her niece while Arezoo’s daughter accidentally catches Tamar at the protest -- where she was trying to be, but was unable to stop because of her hacker friend.

It’s hard to know how Iranian audiences are taking the show so far, but some of the user reviews I found online were mostly on the positive side -- obviously the show isn’t shot in Tehran, it’s all in Athens, so it can only so accurate in that way, but it also does seem like people appreciate how Iranians are not being presented as a monolith, and that even radicals aren’t necessarily about hatred.

It has a real watchable quality to it so far, and I like the kind of conceit it has -- “spy stuck in a dangerous world”, because Tamar must rely on her training and wits to survive and outwit her pursuers, who are capable too. It’s all subtitled (mostly Farsi and some Hebrew), but otherwise it has that tightly edited appeal and characters that are competent without being infallible. I feel like there’s potential to be something really next level, but for now it’s more of the “this is simply a fun watch with some complexity” sort of thing.

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