Any Middle East espionage show in the past 20 or so years has shown mysterious countries like Iran as terrorist hotbeds but doesn’t show them with much subtlety. Tehran is supposed to show the Iranian capital differently, as a Jewish-Persian Mossad agent tries to complete an undercover mission there. But will that message get through the espionage stuff?
TEHRAN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: The airport in Amman, Jordan, we see a woman in a burqa get on a flight from Amman to New Delhi.
The Gist: The woman, and the man she’s with, nervously sit down; both are tense. They get even more tense when young Israeli siblings, Yoni (Yakir Shukrun) and Shira (Tuti Ninio) board the plane at the last second, being ugly tourists the whole time they try to sit down. They could have taken El Al but the Jordanian airline was half the price.
After the plane takes off, there’s a malfunction and the captain says that they’re going to make an emergency landing in Tehran. Yoni starts getting nervous, as Israeli nationals aren’t allowed there. He tries to get the flight attendant to alert the captain but to no avail.
When the plane lands in the Iranian capital, we find out that not everything is what it seems. The woman in the burqa goes in the bathroom, goes into a stall, and finds another, similar-looking woman there, wearing a flight attendant’s uniform. The two switch clothes. It turns out that the woman who went into the bathroom is Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), a Mossad agent who is going undercover as the woman in the flight attendant’s uniform, Zihla. Mossad managed to take over the controls of the plane and created the emergency condition.
Zihla works at the state electric utility and supposedly has codes to disable the anti-aircraft weapons at a nuclear plant. But when Tamar’s partner, Shahin (Reza Diako) tries to get the codes, she says she doesn’t have them. But she said she did to get out of the country.
The Iranian airport security take the Yoni and Shira aside for questioning. Shira gets so scared she pukes, and ends up coming into the bathroom as Tamar exits, and Shira recognizes them from the military base where they both served. It seems like the young Israelis are going to just be asked a few questions, but when Shira blabs to her brother that she saw someone she recognized — she didn’t realize she was being recorded — things get worse.
Security official Faraz Kamali (Shaun Toub) is alerted to the Israelis’ presence. He’s at the airport with his wife, on their way to Paris for her to have medical treatment. But since he’s already there, he’s briefed and questions Shira. The questioning is pretty gentle, but when he gets the transcript of what she said about the woman in the bathroom, he gets much more serious, slapping her and threatening to kill her for lying. She doesn’t know much about the woman, except for the fact that she was in intelligence. Kamali sees if he can stop the flight, but his boss has decided to let the Israelis back on and let the flight continue. He has to beg off the flight with his wife (not the firs time he’s chosen work over her) to see what might be going on with the Mossad agent.
Tamar goes to Zihla’s flat; Zihla’s husband, Masoud (Navid Negahban) tells Tamar that he knows that his wife isn’t coming back. Back at Mossad HQ, mission head Meir Gorev (Menashe Noy) sees if Tamar can use her hacker connection to bypass the codes. She manages to reconnect to that hacker and goes to Zihla’s office late at night, disguising her nose under bandages as if she just had a long-talked-about nose job.
She encounters one of Zihla’s coworkers and tries to avoid her. She makes her way into the server room, hooks up her laptop and gets the hacker to bypass security, but just as she’s shutting off the anti-aircraft missles, Zihla’s boss finds her, chases her, and then tries to rape her when he catches her (he might be the reason she wanted to leave the country). Tamar fights him off and he falls down some stairs and hits his head. Let’s just say things have gone from tenuous to downright dangerous.
Our Take: Tehran feels like a pretty standard-grade espionage thriller, except that the bulk of it takes place in the Iranian capital (location shots were done in Athens, with CGI adding the touches to make it look like Tehran, like large murals of Ayatollas Khomeini and Khamenei). Are we supposed to get insight into the everyday lives of Persians in Tehran, not all of whom are happy with the autocratic regime in charge?
There’s also the matter of how Tamar starts to feel when she goes deeper and deeper undercover. Even though she’s Israeli, she’s of Persian descent so she may be at odds emotionally with her mission. Either way, though, it feels like the way the show is going is that Tamar is going to get deeper and Kamali is going to chase her.
It’s not a stretch to say that Tehran is certainly a good-looking, well-acted series. Sultan is excellent as the conflicted Tamar, and Toub, whom Americans have seen in Homeland and a ton of other shows, does a great job as Kamali, who feels he has to do his job even though it’s getting in the way of caring for his wife, who really needs him. But when there’s a Mossad agent loose in his country, he is ruthless in his pursuit.
But we’re not sure what surprises the show is going to give us. Nothing in the first episode indicates to us that the show won’t go any way but straight cat-and-mouse espionage stories, along with Tamar questioning her loyalties. We’ve seen this on many an espionage show of late, including Toub’s former series Homeland, as well as shows like Tyrant and a raft of espionage shows that have been produced by Israeli production companies, as this series is. Maybe Tehran will surprise us, but we doubt it.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: After Tamar pushes off Zihla’s boss, and it looks like he’s dead, Tamar sees someone else coming and backs off.
Sleeper Star: We’ll hear more from Navid Negahban as Masoud in the coming episodes, as he tries to help Tamar impersonate his wife and blend in better.
Most Pilot-y Line: Not a big complaint, but since the show has to juggle Hebrew, English and Arabic, everything on our screener had subtitles. We guess that’s easier than making three subtitle tracks.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Just because we think the ride Tehran will take us on will be predictable doesn’t mean we don’t want to go on it, especially with performances by Sultan and Toub leading the way.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
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