If there’s one thing this pandemic has given us, it’s the opportunity to experience more international television. Streaming services have been importing a tremendous amount of content from other countries and bringing it to American audiences. One of the latest high-profile premieres is Tehran, an Israeli series whose creative team includes Fauda writer Moshe Zonder.
The complex relationships between Middle Eastern countries are a well-known phenomenon, and were featured on series like 24 and The West Wing even two decades ago. Most recently, Homeland has involved Israel and the way it interacts with the nations around it as a central plot point, and this show presents a deep dive into the espionage operations at play, dressed up in dramatic, suspenseful fashion for an eager television audience.
In the pilot episode, Tamar (Niv Sultan) boards a plane in Amman, Jordan bound for New Delhi, India, wearing a hijab. Shortly after takeoff, an announcement declares that the plane will need to make an emergency landing in Tehran, Iran. When the passengers disembark, Tamar heads straight to the bathroom, where she switches clothes with a flight attendant. The other woman joins Tamar’s traveling companion, while Tamar, now dressed as Zhila, is able to exit the airport and get in a taxi. Tamar’s mission, which involves infiltrating an electric company where the real Zhila works, becomes gradually clearer, as does her own Iranian heritage that played a part in her joining the Mossad, Israel’s top intelligence unit.
This show is best described as a thriller, placing its protagonist deep in enemy territory and in considerable danger. An early scene in the taxi from the airport sees Tamar observing a man who has been executed by hanging for financial crimes and displayed in a public place, a fate she can fully expect should she be discovered. The unintended presence of two Israeli citizens on the flight also adds heart-pounding drama, as their concern for their own lives leads to Iranian officials becoming aware that an Israeli agent may be in their midst.
This isn’t merely a chronicle of Tamar’s undercover job, probing multiple aspects of her life and the intelligence operations underway in Israel and Iran. Shaun Toub, an Iranian-American actor who has been seen recently on Snowpiercer, delivers one of the show’s best performances as Faraz, who postpones a trip to Paris with his wife to remain at the helm of the investigation into this apparent Israeli intrusion into his country. Unlike his superiors, he is unconcerned with the long game of embarrassing Israel and instead wants to get his job done as quickly and efficiently as possible. His dedication and belief in what he is doing almost makes him seem like one of the good guys, even if his main goal is to track down and arrest our protagonist.
Sultan, who has appeared in Israeli films like Almost Famous and Flawless that have played at American film festivals, plays Tamar as an endearing heroine who doesn’t always manifest confidence and regularly makes regrettable mistakes. Navid Negahban, who has played villains in Homeland and Legion, is Masoud, a mildly comforting ally on the ground for Tamar who takes orders from Mossad contacts but whose acceptance of necessary evils puts them at odds. Israeli staples Liraz Charhi and Menashe Noy are recognizable faces within the Mossad who also have Tamar’s best interests at heart but are still ready to disapprove of her impulsive decisions and their likely consequences.
Believing that an operation like this could actually happen and that an Israeli agent would be able to pose as an Iranian citizen may be a stretch, but this show’s style and pacing make it clear that it’s not meant to be digested as real life on screen. Instead, it’s a sleek, energetic, and tense presentation of a mission whose stakes are higher than any other. Even if Tamar completes what she’s been sent in to do, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to make it out of the country alive. Each episode adds new obstacles and makes it feel like Tamar’s odds of success and survival are decreasing. That makes for edge-of-your-seat viewing which is a welcome escape from reality right now.
The first three episodes of Tehran are now available to stream on Apple TV Plus. One new episode premieres every Friday through October 30th.