'Tehran': TV Review

Tehran
Apple TV+
A better tragedy than a thriller — and perhaps intended that way.
9/25/2020

'Fauda' writer Moshe Zonder co-creates this espionage thriller about a Mossad agent who sneaks into Iran.

Apple TV+’s new spy thriller, the Israeli but Iran-set Tehran, is as much about the human cost of espionage as it is about the thrills of infiltration. The latter is represented in an exciting early scene in the pilot, when a chador-clad woman, whose heavily made-up eyes are the only features we can see of her, enters a bathroom stall at the Tehran airport, trades outfits with the flight attendant waiting for her there and exits into the city, an enemy of the country she’s just crossed into. Mossad agent Tamar (Niv Sultan) never hears what her Iranian counterpart — electric company employee Zhila, whose identity she’ll assume — says of her defection: "I’d rather die than stay here."

When it debuted earlier this summer on Israel’s Kan 11 network (and was made available on the channel’s website with Farsi subtitles), Tehran was accused by some pro-regime hardliners of being anti-Iranian propaganda. (Just as reliably, their more liberal compatriots grumbled that the series was too sympathetic to officials in the Iranian intelligence agencies.) As the split reactions suggest, creators Moshe Zonder (a Fauda alum), Dana Eden and Maor Kohn aim for a more humanist vision — one in which ordinary Iranians are caught between their own repressive government and foreign culprits, cruelty between Israel and Iran only begets more cruelty, and the dividing lines between the two countries, however hawkishly enforced, are more political than actual.

Though it’s set in two countries, alternates between English, Hebrew and Farsi and boasts a sprawling cast, Tehran is so immersive and narratively orderly that it’s almost impossible to get lost. With bandages covering her nose (the implication of a recent cosmetic procedure hiding the small facial differences between herself and Zhila), Tamar wastes no time before attempting to hack into the electric grid. But it’s not long until she decides to cut loose her brutally pragmatic handler, Masoud (Navid Negahban), opting instead to seek refuge in strangers (Esti Yerushalmi, Shervin Alenabi) who have their own reasons for risking the retaliatory ire of the authorities.

Tamar’s unlikely foil is Iranian intelligence officer Faraz (a deliciously mercurial Shaun Toub), whose path toward going rogue is more winding than the Israeli agent’s, but just as inevitable. A doting, indulgent husband to his wife, Nahid (Shila Ommi), but almost always a patriot first, Faraz encourages Nahid to board the plane to their Paris vacation without him when he deduces that an Israeli spy has sneaked into his country — a spousal failing he’ll soon pay dearly for.

Beautiful, brave and trained in Krav Maga, Tamar offers in her storyline the genre pleasures of the espionage thriller. She also enjoys the rare opportunity of getting to know her parents’ homeland and her own birth country, but Tehran never lets viewers forget that, until she can obtain a forged passport, she's also trapped there. Eventually she finds a love interest in a political dissident — one of many show elements that adeptly reveal, and humanize, the fissures within Iranian society. But Tamar’s ultimate role in Iran isn’t that of an explorer but a destroyer, with her reverse Hand of Midas turning everything she touches into wreckage.

The twist-heavy, eight-part debut season belongs in many ways, then, to Faraz, who, like so many of his countrymen, is forced to become both victim and victimizer. Toub portrays his official as a man whose instincts run toward compassion, but who’s all too often made to wield the hammer lest it fall on him. (Faraz is also a more consistently written character than Tamar, whom the writers often push into stupid decisions for plot reasons, particularly in the flabbier middle chapters.) Though nearly all the spies are hemmed in by their respective bureaucracies, none are as cornered as Faraz, who struggles to hold on to his sense of self when the Mossad decides to fight dirtier than usual to keep him from finding Tamar.

With nearly every episode beginning seconds after the previous one ends, Tehran aspires to never let audiences come up for air — an admirable aim that unfortunately also leads to an occasional tonal monotony. Directed by Daniel Syrkin, the production is cold-feeling yet teeming with humanity, with the many urbanscapes (shot in Athens) particularly compelling in their persuasiveness. With its heart on its sleeve, Tehran's a better tragedy than it is a thriller — and perhaps intended that way.

Cast: Niv Sultan, Shaun Toub, Navid Negahban, Liraz Charhi, Menashe Noy, Shervin Alenabi
Creators: Moshe Zonder, Dana Eden, Maor Kohn
Premieres Friday, Sept. 25 (Apple TV+)