‘Tehran’ Review: ‘24’ Meets ‘The Americans’ in Iran – The New York Times
An Israeli spy series on Apple TV+ has all the cliffhangers you could ever need.
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By Mike Hale
This review includes spoilers for Season 1 of “Tehran.”
Two decades ago, the Fox series “24” established a template for a new kind of action show: operating at a pitch of constant crisis; packaging street-level detective work, dire terrorist threats and high-level government conspiracies; and indulging a pervading cynicism about practically every person and institution onscreen, except for the tortured hero and a few dependable colleagues.
“24” also had brilliant, if macabre, timing, premiering two months after the Sept. 11 attacks and prospering in the unsettled years that followed. In its wake came many shows that tried for a similar effect (without the real-time, single-day structure that gave it much of its urgency). Some, like “Homeland,” developed by “24” veterans, were superior dramas. But nothing achieved quite the same level of protracted yet controlled chaos, like a Saturday-matinee serial with better writing and production values.
Until now. “Tehran,” an Israeli thriller whose second season began Friday on Apple TV+, is catnip for the cliffhanger-deprived. Its hero, the Mossad agent Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), is in perpetual peril, a condition compounded by the show’s melding of “24”-style plot mechanics with a conceit taken straight from “The Americans”: She’s alone and undercover in the capital of her country’s most deadly enemy, Iran.
Tamar’s specialty is hacking, and in Season 1 (which won an International Emmy for best drama) her mission was to compromise Iran’s air defenses so that Israel could bomb an Iranian nuclear plant. Complications ensued — a handsy electrical-station employee, an ad hoc alliance with a group of anti-government activists (one of whom she fell for) and a relentless pursuit by a skilled investigator with the Revolutionary Guards, Faraz Kamali (Shaun Toub).
The Iranian Faraz’s cat-and-mouse game with the Israeli Tamar is the backbone of the story. But unlike “24,” in which the American agent Jack Bauer is the unquestioned hero, or “The Americans,” in which our emotions are clearly directed to the Soviet moles, “Tehran” doesn’t have precisely defined rooting interests. The resourceful, constantly improvising Tamar is the protagonist, but the most sympathetic character is Faraz, a devoted husband to his sick wife and a loyal, dogged agent ill-used by a government and an intelligence apparatus portrayed as rigid and corrupt.
It’s hard to say how much of Faraz’s appeal is in the writing and how much is thanks to the quiet, unassuming work of Toub (who played an Iranian spy in “Homeland”). He gives Faraz layers of pride, anger, exasperation and compassion as he tracks Tamar while being bullied by his superiors and leaned on by his wife, Naahid (Shila Ommi), whose troubles become a focal point in Season 2.
Sultan doesn’t have Toub’s resources as an actor, but she is quite appealing as Tamar, a hero who isn’t always easy to like — her life-or-death decisions, which often affect other people badly, seem to be driven as much by her need to prove herself as by her devotion to Israel.
“Tehran” works at subverting expectations, and — major Season 1 spoiler here — one of its big surprises was that Tamar’s first mission failed, though she redeemed herself by saving most of the Israeli airplanes from destruction. She remains in Tehran in Season 2, tasked with helping to rescue a pilot who was shot down. She’s aided by some local Mossad operatives, including a new character played with an exquisite chill by Glenn Close, and by her fellow hacker and now boyfriend, the Iranian dissident Milad (Shervin Alenabi).
As events inevitably spiral and Tamar repeatedly dodges or disobeys orders to exfiltrate herself and Milad, credibility and plot contrivance do a wild dance. Tamar’s and Milad’s pictures are up all over Tehran, but no one recognizes them or notices the yellow taxi driven by a local agent that keeps picking them up all over town. Back in Israel, the Mossad appears to have instant access to every closed-circuit camera in Tehran. The security details of high-ranking Iranian officials and their relatives are inept or nonexistent.
Tics like these are easy enough to overlook in an action-oriented spy thriller; more bothersome is how the new season adds love to Tamar’s motivations (and encumbrances), a move that jacks up the emotional stakes but makes the drama squishier and a little less interesting. The show does fine with the prickly, mature relationship of Faraz and Naahid, but Tamar and Milad’s romance doesn’t rise above cliché, and Sultan and Alenabi don’t bring much heat to it.
Taub and Sultan still make us care about Faraz and Tamar, however, and the show’s evocations of Iranian venality and nepotism and brutal Israeli realpolitik are more pointed than ever. It’s no spoiler to say that the season ends — as it must, if there are to be more — with Tamar on the run into the Tehran night.
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May 13, 2022 at 07:09PM