An Israeli-produced series debuting on Apple TV Plus, “Tehran” is a show that looks at Iran through an alternately adversarial and nostalgic lens. The protagonist, Mossad agent Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), infiltrates the nation following an emergency landing of a passenger jet in the capital city; she is on a mission that, should it succeed, will have the long-tail effect of thwarting what the viewer is made to understand are Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The series’s adversarial side comes through in Tamar’s mission, and in the people she encounters. Its nostalgia stems from the idea that she, indeed, is one of them, a citizen of an Iran that was: She was born in Iran and lived there until her family fled, and has both family ties and a sense of Iran as a place worthy of her saving it. A relationship with a figure in the Iranian opposition (Shervin Alenabi) as well as time spent with Arezoo, an aunt who remained behind (Esti Yerushalmi), cement that sense. Her exposure, and ours, to Iranian street life, as in the case of Arezoo’s daughter (Sogand Sara Fakheri), who protests “immodest dress” and calls the opposition movement “meddling lowlifes,” represents Iran in one uncomplicated way, a way that makes this series’s existence on American TV make sense. “Tehran’s” biases tend to flatter American prejudices, too. Arezoo frets “I don’t know how she got involved with the Muslim students,” flatly equating Islam with the enemy; those same Muslims chant about jihad at a protest, with one declaring, “Reformists, Conservatives, it’s all over for you!”
As television, the show, created by Moshe Zonder (previously the head writer of Israeli series “Fauda”) is flawed: At least a few episodes too long, lacking plausibility or tension, turgid when it wants to be zippy. (How can a spy show in which the protagonist is constantly trying on new identities, up to and including a fake beard stuck on poor Tamar, feel this baleful?) As a document of its moment, it feels built to flatter the present-day American posture towards Iran, treating its threat as beyond negotiation, worth engaging with only to dismantle.
It is hardly an endorsement of the present-day Iranian regime (not that that is a TV critic’s job in the first place) to suggest that a show called “Tehran,” one that assays a nation that has undergone seismic and chaotic change in living memory, might make more sense were it really about Iranians living in Tehran. It might be more apropos to follow the struggles and dramas and doubts and triumphs of citizens, and to eke out criticism of the state (if that is indeed the order of the day) that way. “Tehran” doesn’t exclude Iranians entirely, but does frame them as allies or obstacles of a Mossad mission depicted uncritically and somewhat blankly as the work of justice, and more than that as a vehicle for thrills and scares. That gets at the flaw of “Tehran”: It’s not that it’s on the wrong side of a geopolitical conflict. It’s that, emanating from outside the land it takes as its subject, it doesn’t have enough on its mind to recognize one side of that conflict as truly real.