In Israel: Aired on Kan 11 in June
In the UK: Fridays, Apple TV+
‘A Netflix Original’. ‘An Amazon Original’. ‘An Apple TV+ Original’. It’s always fascinating to see just how much TV on the global streaming services isn’t actually original – just some exclusive acquired TV given a new name tag.
Amazon is probably the most transparent service, but even the likes of Good Omens – a co-production with the BBC – get called Amazon Originals. Netflix, for its part, is happy to stamp Original on practically everything it buys from anyone else, whether it put any money into making it or not.
And now here comes Apple TV+’s first non-English language ‘Apple Original’, Tehran. Which is actually just a Kan 11 (Israel) TV show for which Apple has exclusive rights outside Israel. So far, so Netflix.
What’s more interesting than that simple aping of Netflix – and lack of honesty about a show’s origins, despite the global ‘trust us’ Apple brand – is this choice. It’s an Israeli show. Not French, German or anything else, but Israeli. And a spy show to boot, set in Iran, with a mix of Farsi, Hebrew, English and even French dialogue – all with some very high production values, too.
As a way of saying, “Netflix… similar, but classier. More Think Different”, you’d be hard-pushed to pick a clearer opening move.
Tehran – but not
Tehran focuses on Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), a Jewish woman born in Iran but raised in Israel. A Mossad agent and computer hacker, she’s sent to Tehran to neutralise Iran’s air defences, so that Israeli warplanes can bomb a nuclear plant and prevent Iran from obtaining an atomic bomb.
When she arrives in Iran she switches identities with a Muslim employee of the local electricity company. But the mission goes wrong and she has to go into hiding, while being hunted by Shaun Toub (Iron Man) and occasionally helped by local Mossad agent Navid Negahban (Homeland, Legion).
As she does so, she learns more about her roots and Tehran itself.
For the most part, Tehran is all production values. It looks great, very filmic, and its cast are very recognisable from non-Israeli shows – and very good.
But in terms of spying, it’s all gloss and no substance. The hacking is inept and poorly detailed, but worse still, no one really seems to understand what covert even means – Negahban goes on spying missions while driving a car emblazoned with his travel company’s livery, for example, and everyone goes around having conversations on cellphones without worrying that they might be tracked. It’s not going to rival the verisimilitude of Le bureau des Légendes any time soon, that’s for sure.
It’s also not exactly unique. If you’ve seen כפולים (False Flag), you’ll have seen a similarly tense spy show, while פאודה (Fauda) has a similarly nuanced, yet also Israeli-centric take on Arab-Israeli relationships and spying – perhaps unsurprisingly as Fauda was also written by Tehran‘s creator Moshe Zonder. This very much fits into a standard Israeli TV format and standard Israeli TV assumptions, right down to the idea we should all be implicitly supporting an Israeli mission to bomb Iran.
Compounding all of that is an uninspiring heroine, who really comes up with some stupid ideas. Lodging with a family whose daughter is going to a student protest tomorrow. Then why not turn up to the same, well-policed demo – but on the opposing side! What could possibly go wrong at a time when you absolutely want to be as inconspicuous as possible?
Cat and mouse
But that doesn’t mean Tehran is without merit in these areas either. The always fabulous Shaun Toub plays a character who is actually very smart and a better spy than our heroine seems to be. The show also does a very good job of making his character both frightening and endearing.
And sure, it’s all from an Israeli perspective and embodies certain Israeli attitudes towards Iran. But the show also does a surprisingly good job of portraying the two faces of the country – it is, after all, called Tehran, not Let’s Go Spy in Iran.
On the one hand, there’s religion, autocracy, fundamentalists and the death penalty for anyone who fights the state. On the other, it’s also just another country in some senses, with people with jobs and regular lives.
And its children often have modern, Western values. The second and third episodes take us to underground parties, where drug-taking, homosexuality and more are on display in a way that would not be permitted in public. But we also see the police in action – and they’re all leather jackets, SUVs and handguns.
It’s a far more considered representation than you’d expect from a US show – or an Israeli show for that matter.
Perhaps more fascinating are the hints in episode four as to where the show will be going – and what it will mean for Toub’s character (spoiler alert) – the Israelis will use his wife to make him do what they want . If they go where they’re suggesting, that would actually take the show in some pretty interesting directions and overcome the constraints of its plot so far.
And perhaps that, as well as that liberal effort to paint nuance and diversity in an attempt at authenticity, is what makes this an Apple TV+ show. It’s also what makes it Apple’s best show in quite some time – and is going to make me want to watch more of it.
- The show has a large number of audio and subtitling options. Some scenes in Paris where everyone spoke French I decided to put into the ‘French dubbed version’ (there’s also an audio description version) with French subtitles. Intriguingly, one actor, despite speaking French with a not-too-heavy accent in the Hebrew soundtrack, was overdubbed into perfect French, while an actress in the same scene was not redubbed. Clearly, French audiences are very pernickety about accents