In order for any streaming service to keep up with the competition, it must serve up serialized shows that people can’t wait to finish. Until now, Apple TV+ did not offer one of those. Not even the star-studded and fairly engrossing Defending Jacob proved so compelling you couldn’t turn it off.
That all changes this Friday, when Israeli spy thriller Tehran premieres on Apple TV+. The streaming service’s best dramatic show by a mile, it delivers stunning displays of intrigue and backstabbing.
Created by Dana Eden, Maor Kohn, Omri Shenhar, Daniel Syrkin and Moshe Zonder, Tehran begins with a deftly handled, nerve-wracking tangent. Two Israeli 20-somethings are coming back from vacation when their plane makes an emergency landing in Tehran, the bustling capital of hostile neighbor Iran.
The two kids sweat bullets as they’re forced to exit the plane and get interviewed by Faraz Kamali (played by the great Shaun Toub, who viewers might recognize from anything from The Last Airbender to the Snowpiercer TV series). Kamali grills them about their purpose in Tehran, but a really curious thing happens in the ladies room. The girl recognizes someone from her time serving in the Israel Defense Forces. However, her acquaintance was dressed in traditional Muslim clothing.
That someone is Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), a Mossad agent and computer hacker sent to infiltrate an Iranian power company so she can gain access to some important power grids. The Israelis have decided Iran’s had a nuclear program for quite long enough, and they’d like very much to do something about it.
They do not, however, stand a chance if they can’t get into Iranian airspace without being detected by radar. Enter Tamar, who hacks under the name Shakira, and who has a complicated history with Tehran and her people.
There are no easy heroes and villains in Tehran
A series like this must do a little gymnastics to avoid the obvious pitfalls of making a show about nations that aren’t exactly at war but are most certainly at odds. There’s a reason that, despite their long runs, American shows like Homeland and Jack Ryan don’t attract a huge number of fans in the countries they are ostensibly about.
Tehran is a show completely absent an outsider perspective; this is about the lives ignored by American narratives on and off screen. The show immediately points out that both sides of the conflict are guided by people with extremely compromised morality. However, it also admits that people have to do a lot to survive, and there are decent people caught in between. Iran and Israel are each represented by both people who think nothing of torture and murder to get one over on their enemies, and their innocent friends who have to lie to survive.
There’s a nationalist dogma at work that undoes both sides, so committed to their cause that they lose their humanity before the fight has even begun. It feels accurate and hopeless. Nevertheless, between the strong writing and the powerful performances you absolutely want to know what happens next.
Tamar enters Tehran posing as a woman who works for the power company, who in short order we learn was having an affair with her boss — an excellent detail that could just be shading but helps push her further into a corner. There’s a lot of very messy humanity to go around in Tehran.
Intrigue and backstabbing in Apple TV+ spy drama
As good as Toub’s work is as Faraz, the workaholic loving husband and cunning tormentor, he’s met by the stunningly adept Sultan as Tamar. She plays a different kind of character in every episode, which makes this a performance on a par with Tatiana Maslany’s work in Orphan Black. Tamar is a richly complicated character even before she has to pretend to be several different kinds of women to keep her cover alive while she’s in Tehran for her mission. It’s continually exciting work, and it’s a sturdy center for this potboiler.
Apple TV+ made something of a gamble buying this show, with its hot-button political trappings and its international cast. This is not a show afraid of pointing fingers, and as such as it’s quite likely to make people angry as well as turn off American viewers. But this is exactly the kind of risk the streaming service should be taking.
Tehran co-creator Daniel Syrkin, who directed every episode, has become something of a Mossad drama specialist over the years. And Tehran is proof of his sophistication handling these ideas. There’s a lot of ground to cover between the plane landing in Tehran and the threat of Israeli fighter jets launching in the season finale, and he does it all with apparent ease.
Also a brief note: The Tehran theme song by Mark Eliyahu is a stunning earworm. I haven’t stopped humming it all week.
Tehran on Apple TV+
The first three 45-minute episodes of Tehran premiere on September 25.
Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.