Television

Iran, the Enemy That Never Stops Giving

It’s not only the prime minister who’s focused on the Iranian threat. Television writers also seem to find the country an endless source of inspiration.

Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin as Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson in 'Homeland.' Tangled up in Iran.
Stephan Rabold/AP

The Islamic Republic of Iran plays a disproportionately large role in the lives of Israelis, thanks in no small part to our prime minister’s obsession with all things Persian.

Just last week in Moscow, Benjamin Netanyahu gave Vladimir Putin a lesson in Jewish history, saying that, two and a half millennia ago, the Persians attempted to destroy the Jewish people. “Today,” Bibi declared, “there is an attempt by Persia’s heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews.”

The Russian leader, clearly bemused by his guest’s citation of an event that happened “in the 5th century B.C.E.,” told Netanyahu that “we now live in a different world” and suggested discussing more current problems in the Middle East.

But Iran’s contribution is not limited to providing the Israeli prime minister with a seemingly inexhaustible stockpile of WMDs – weapons of mass distraction.

U.S. President Donald Trump also drew heavily on the Iranian nuclear threat during his election campaign. Echoing Netanyahu almost word for word, he called the agreement his predecessor struck with Tehran “the worst deal in history” and vowed to walk away from it if elected.

With one country dominating so many news cycles, it’s hardly surprising to find that Iran is providing inspiration for the plotlines of several TV shows.

Almost inevitably, one such show is “Homeland” (Tuesdays at 22.00 on Yes Oh), which limped last month into its sixth season – at least four of which have been utterly superfluous. In previous seasons, Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) – now a former CIA operations officer but still very much a manic depressive – tries to infiltrate the Revolutionary Guards. In a denouement clearly inspired by then-President Barack Obama’s rosiest dreams, Iran offers the International Atomic Energy Agency full access to its nuclear facilities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

This time around, it’s Carrie’s former boss, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), who is tangled up in Iran. He is apparently being hoodwinked by the Mossad – and possibly his superiors in the CIA – to report back to Washington that the Iranians are pursuing a parallel nuclear program with North Korea.

The notion that Mossad would stop at nothing to make Iran look like it’s trying to obtain nuclear weapons doesn’t seem far-fetched. “By way of deception shalt thou do war” is, after all, the organization’s motto. And by hinting that evidence of Iranian violations of the nuclear deal can’t be taken at face value, the “Homeland” showrunners are clearly trying to avoid the kind of backlash the show’s third season engendered. At the time, “Homeland” was criticized as “harmful and insidious,” by Middle East policy expert Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics. “It create[s] and really enforce[s] hostilities between the people of the two nations,” Gerges said after the show was accused of dealing in stereotypes and casting Iran in the villainous role once filled by the Soviet Union.

So far, we have heard no complaints from Israeli officials that the show is casting unwarranted aspersions on Israel. It could be Netanyahu is secretly pleased that, in a fictional TV show at least, his Iranian obsession is being taken seriously.

Original, dark and painfully sharp

One show that is decidedly not taking the Iranian nuclear threat seriously is “Patriot,” produced by Amazon Studios. It feels like it was written by John le Carré on magic mushrooms, with a screenplay from a post-nervous breakdown James Bond.

A swirling, intoxicating and somewhat surreal experience, “Patriot” – the brainchild of screenwriter Steven Conrad – ostensibly tells the story of a calamitous American plot to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While this might induce an overpowering sense of déjà vu in some viewers, what follows is original, dark and painfully sharp.

The man responsible for the plan – which involved bankrolling the election campaign of an Iranian moderate opposed to nuclear weapons – is Tom Tavner (played by Terry O’Quinn), the director of an unnamed United States intelligence organization. His go-to agent is John Tavner, his son.

But there’s a problem with John. On his last mission, he accidentally killed an elderly hotel cleaner, instead of the Egyptian physicist he had been dispatched to, well, dispatch. Now he’s hiding out in Amsterdam, “getting baked” and writing plaintive folk songs about his missions.

Amazon Prime's "Patriot" Amazon Prime's "Patriot"

John, played by New Zealand-born actor Michael Dorman, is recruited for one more mission by his father – a mission that entails assuming an NOC (non-official cover) and masquerading as a mid-level executive at a Milwaukee piping firm.

The plan is simple enough; the United States will bankroll the election campaign of a moderate Iranian politician who openly opposes his country’s nuclear program. But the money falls into the hands of a hardline cleric, also running for the presidency, who wants nothing more than to forge ahead with said nuclear program.

In his efforts to recover the cash, John runs afoul of a troupe of Brazilian wrestlers, two Korean escorts hired to whip his boss’s hamstrings with Twizzlers (“It’s not sexual, let me assure you”), the Luxembourg police and several of his colleagues at the piping firm, including the delightfully uptight manager played by Kurtwood Smith (“That ‘70s Show”).

Throughout, John continues to write and perform wholly inappropriate folk songs, given that he uses them to disclose the often bloody and presumably classified details of his profession. These songs, of course, also serve as a useful plot device. Within six minutes of the start of the first episode, we hear the strumming of an acoustic guitar and a voice so laid back it makes Leonard Cohen sound manic. “In June 2011,” he half-sings, half-recites, “the United States learned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fucking around with new centrifuges”

“Patriot” manages to combine satire, slapstick and the kind of verbal absurdity that just sounds funny. The scenes where John is forced to bluster his way through piping presentations – “Using a field of half-seized sprats and brass-fitted nickel slits, our bracketed caps and splay-flexed brace columns vent dampers to dampening hatch depths of 0.5 meters from the damper crown to the spurv plinth” – are among the funniest in the show.

The pilot episode of “Patriot” was aired late in 2015. In geopolitical terms, that’s a lifetime ago. Fortunately for Amazon, however, there was never any chance that Iran would suddenly stop being topical.