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An Israeli Agent Finds Herself Stranded In 'Tehran' In A Gripping New Spy Series

Niv Sultan stars as a tech-savvy Mossad agent trying to escape Iran in the eight-part spy thriller Tehran.
Niv Sultan stars as a tech-savvy Mossad agent trying to escape Iran in the eight-part spy thriller Tehran.

For nearly a century, spy stories were a male preserve, one dominated by the likes of James Bond, or — at the classier end — John le Carré. That has finally begun to change, especially on television. Whether you're talking about Homeland, The Americans, The Bureau or The Little Drummer Girl — le Carré's one story centering on a heroine — we've entered a period when some of the most gripping series on TV tell stories about women going into the cold.

And things are mighty cold in Tehran, a new eight-episode Israeli show premiering on Apple TV+. A big hit in Israel earlier this year, this thriller about a spy mission gone wrong isn't merely suspenseful. It's a glimpse of how one ancient culture portrays another ancient culture — particularly one that's currently its avowed enemy.

Israeli star Niv Sultan stars as Tamar Rabinyan, a tech-savvy Mossad agent who's been smuggled into Tehran to cripple the Iranian power grid before an Israeli air assault. But after a deadly snafu, Tamar must escape into the night — then figure out how to survive in a city not exactly known for its hospitality toward Israeli spies. Though she doesn't know it, she's already being pursued by a crack Iranian security agent named Faraz Kamali (Shaun Toub).

As Mossad officers back in Israel plot to get her out of Iran, Tamar keeps on the move. Her restless motion brings her into contact with an array of Iranians — honorable judges and corrupt cops, drug dealers and dissidents, Iranian Jews who have converted to Islam and Muslims who work for Israel. Predictably, she finds someone with whom to share a romantic spark — a dissident hacker played by Shervin Alenabi who is a tad ... slippery. Meanwhile, the relentless Kamali keeps after her.

Now, even the best spy stories often sacrifice plausibility to keep the audience hooked. Here, Tamar often behaves in a way you might expect of an ingenue rather than a Mossad agent with enough brains and martial arts skills to be infiltrated into Iran. You keep wondering why a female spy on the lam would keep wearing her headscarf rather immodestly when Tehran is a city in which there's nothing suspicious about a woman covering her features.

While the many twists do keep the show gripping, what makes it interesting is seeing how an Israeli production depicts Iran. At first, it appears that we might be dealing with a kind of geopolitical horror show. We watch Israeli tourists freak out when, because of a malfunction, they unexpectedly need to change planes in Tehran, a place that is initially made to feel alienating and spooky.

Yet the show quickly grows more complex. Tehran makes it clear that the Mossad is capable of unsavory violence, and it pointedly avoids reducing Iranians to monsters, carefully making a distinction between the people and their government. Struggling to stay safe, Tamar encounters a wide range of personality types and attitudes toward the mullahs, from zealous supporters to passionate dissidents to ordinary people who are quiescent or trapped. I've read reports that some viewers in Iran felt the show was too sympathetic to those in the regime.

In any case, the show's best and most complicated character is Tamar's nemesis, Kamali, played by Shaun Toub, a superb actor you may recognize from Homeland and the film Crash. Kamali takes obvious pleasure in being a ruthlessly good security agent. Yet his dedication to his country is matched by his adoration of his wife, a witty charmer who's getting an operation for cancer. By turns brutal and tender, Kamali discovers that his private feelings don't always mesh with his political beliefs.

You find a similar inner conflict in Tamar, who's a far cry from a sardonic killer like 007 or an erratic genius like Carrie Mathison in Homeland. While her moral ambivalence makes her less exciting — her features are tinged with mournfulness — it also makes her more like you and me than the larger-than-life spies we're used to seeing.

This is only fitting. Even as the series builds toward an explosive finale, it wants to use the spy genre to suggest something grounded and thoughtful about the weight of history. At its best, Tehran does that. It gives us a story about characters who, caught amid shifting personal and political identities, must decide who and what they truly care about most. Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Transcript:

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new TV series "Tehran," premiering on Apple TV Plus tomorrow, a female Israeli spy is sent undercover to Iran. While her mission turns out to be a mess, our critic at large John Powers says the show offers us a vision of the Middle East we don't normally get to see.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: For nearly a century, spy stories were a male preserve, one dominated by the likes of James Bond or, at the classier end, John le Carre. That's finally begun to change, especially on television. Whether you're talking about "Homeland," "The Americans," "The Bureau" or "The Little Drummer Girl" - le Carre's one story centering on a heroine - we've entered a period when some of the most gripping series on TV tell stories about women going into the cold. And things are mighty cold in "Tehran," a new eight-episode Israeli show premiering on Apple TV Plus. A big hit in Israel earlier this year, this thriller about a spy mission gone wrong isn't merely suspenseful. It lets us glimpse how one ancient culture portrays another ancient culture that is currently its avowed enemy. The show's heroine is Tamar Rabinyan - that's Israeli star Niv Sultan - a tech savvy Mossad agent. She's been smuggled into Tehran under a fake identity to cripple the power grid before an Israeli air assault. But after a deadly snafu, Tamar must escape into the night, then figure out how to survive in a city not exactly known for its hospitality toward Israeli spies. Though she doesn't know it, she's being pursued by a crack Iranian security agent, Faraz Kamali, played by Shaun Toub, a superb actor you may recognize from "Homeland" and the film "Crash." As Mossad officers back in Israel plot to get her out of Iran, Tamar keeps on the move. Her restless motion brings her into contact with an array of Iranians - honorable judges and corrupt cops, drug dealers and dissidents, Iranian Jews who've converted to Islam and Muslims who work for Israel. Predictably, she finds someone with whom to share a romantic spark, a hacker played by Shervin Alenabi, who is a tad, well, slippery. Meanwhile, the relentless Kamali keeps sniffing after her. Here, early on, he interrogates an Israeli woman who encountered Tamar in the ladies' room at the Tehran airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TEHRAN")

SHAUN TOUB: (As Faraz) I understand that you had a little incident earlier in the bathroom with the flight attendant. The security guard saw you talking. So what were you talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I was just curious about their uniform.

TOUB: (As Faraz) Oh. So you were arrested in an enemy country. And a moment ago you were almost fainting from fear. And all of a sudden, you were curious about the uniform?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes. I was interested. And she got a little stressed.

TOUB: (As Faraz) Oh. And why would she get stressed?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I don't know. Ask her.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAND SLAPPING AND GRUNTING)

TOUB: (As Faraz) You weren't talking about the uniform. What were you talking about? What did your friend want to know? Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What?

TOUB: (As Faraz) What happened to the flight attendant? What did you want to tell your friend that he didn't want to hear?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm not from the Mossad or anything. I was just flying to India.

TOUB: (As Faraz) You keep lying to me, you're not going to make it home alive.

POWERS: Now, even the very best spy stories often sacrifice plausibility to keep the audience hooked. Here, Tamar often behaves in a way you might expect of an ingenue rather than a Mossad agent with enough brains and martial arts skills to be infiltrated into Iran. You keep wondering why a female spy on the lam would keep wearing her headscarf rather immodestly when Tehran is one city in which there's nothing suspicious about a woman covering her features.

While the many twists do keep the show gripping, what makes it interesting is seeing how an Israeli production depicts Iran. At first, it appears that we might be dealing with a kind of geopolitical horror show. We watch Israeli tourists freak out when, because of a malfunction, they unexpectedly need to change planes in Tehran, a place that is initially made to feel alienating and spooky. Yet the show quickly grows more complex.

"Tehran" makes it clear that the Mossad is capable of unsavory violence. And it pointedly avoids reducing Iranians to monsters, carefully making a distinction between the people and their government. Struggling to stay safe, Tamar encounters a wide range of personality types and attitudes toward the mullahs, from zealous supporters to gung-ho dissidents, to ordinary people who are quiescent or trapped. Curiously enough, I've read reports that some viewers in Iran felt the show was too sympathetic to those in the regime.

In any case, the show's best and most complicated character is Tamar's nemesis, Kamali. Beautifully played by the gaunt, grizzled Toub, Kamali takes obvious pleasure in being a ruthlessly good security agent. Yet his dedication to his country is matched by his adoration of his wife, a witty charmer who's getting an operation for cancer. By turns brutal and tender, Kamali discovers that his private feelings don't always mesh with his political beliefs.

You find a similar inner conflict in Tamar, who's a far cry from a sardonic killer like 007 or a wigged-out genius like Carrie Mathison on "Homeland." Her moral ambivalence makes her less exciting. Her features are tinged with mournfulness. It also makes her more like you and me than the larger-than-life spies we're used to seeing. This is only fitting. Even as the series builds for an explosive finale, it wants to use the spy genre to suggest something grounded and thoughtful about the weight of history. At its best, "Tehran" does that. It gives us a story about characters who, caught amid shifting personal and cultural identities, must decide who and what they truly care about most.

DAVIES: Critic-at-large John Powers reviewed the new TV series "Tehran," beginning tomorrow on Apple TV+. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Forbes magazine journalist Dan Alexander about his investigation into Donald Trump's finances - the subject of his new book, "White House, Inc." - or with Politico health reporter Dan Diamond about political appointees in the Trump administration influencing public health policy, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "ORIENTAL BASS")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "ORIENTAL BASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.