Israeli Spy Thriller 'Tehran' Is Better Than 'Fauda'

The main protagonist is brilliant, the script is more intelligent than most of those you've seen in similar shows. Here's what our critic thought of 'Tehran,' the winner of the International Emmys

Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed
The main protagonist Tamar Rabinyan, played by actress Niv Sultan, in the new Kan Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation thriller television series "Tehran," June 2020
Niv Sultan as the main protagonist in "Tehran." Her acting is varied and breathtaking, credible and finely nuanced, wise and captivating. Credit: "Tehran"/Kan Public Broadcaster Channel 11
Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed

Israel's preparations for an attack against Iran at the beginning of this decade cost us 11 billion shekels ($3.2 billion), according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and foreign media sources. The time has come to recoup some of that money – and look who’s doing that? The Kan Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, which has sold its “Tehran” series to Apple TV. It will be aired in 135 countries.

This is poetic justice at its best, and just at the right time: Other foreign publications report that Israel was behind the cyberattack that paralyzed an Iranian port about a month ago. But “Tehran” has far greater ambitions: both launching a cyberattack and blowing up a nuclear reactor, as becomes clear at the outset. And all that in eight episodes.

If reality were to obey the laws of drama, actor Menashe Noy, in the role of a senior Mossad official, would be able to inform the prime minister immediately that our aircraft returned home safely and that Tamar Rabinyan, played by Niv Sultan, is in our hands. But drama has strict rules of its own, and only begins to be interesting when something goes awry.

That happens already in the first episode, and when you watch it you will curse the screen and the broadcasting corporation, because there’s no option for binge watching. You won’t be able to stay away and you’ll want more. The three episodes I watched reveal a television series that is outstanding, polished and very effective by American criteria, and focal points of intrigue that are unexpected and even somewhat subversive.

The series is action-packed but without too many bodies, because that’s not the point. It is beautifully filmed in Athens, which suddenly looks like the capital of Iran as we imagine it. Some of the supporting actors and all the extras are exiled Iranians, which adds to the overall human credibility in the scenes of protests and beatings, as well as during the most charged and panicky moments.

The series offers us a particularly fascinating journey: The fate of the attack and perhaps of Israel as a whole is borne on the slim shoulders of one of our female hackers, graced with hand-to-hand combat skills and infinite gentleness, and the ability to kill and lie and smile and jump from high floors and escape from pursuers and hide – all for the sake of the objective, while avoiding the clichés of both Wonder Woman and Rambo.

Niv Sultan as Tamar Rabinyan, in "Tehran." Graced with the ability to kill and lie and escape from pursuers, while avoiding the clichés of both Wonder Woman and Rambo.Credit: "Tehran"/Kan Public Broadcaster Channel 11

Meet Tamar Rabinyan, an Israeli heroine the likes of whom you’ve never seen. More solitary than Our (fictitious)? Man in Damascus, more humane than any fanatic with a knife between their teeth, more complex in her personality and motives than any of the attackers and undercover agents you’ve seen until now on the small screen.

Niv “she’s got the touch” Sultan turns out to be a brilliant casting choice for this intricate character, because she succeeds in maneuvering among these complexities while speaking fluent Farsi most of the time, and with amazing variations in her speech. This is no simple thing for someone who doesn’t know the language, and it reflects a particularly powerful acting ability that contributes to the show's overall credibility.

Her appearance is also fascinating, of course: The dissonance between her doe-eyed look that expresses vulnerability, and the tough demands she faces while confronting ongoing perils, ratchets up the tension – will she succeed in escaping from yet another major danger? Withstand the torture we know awaits her if she is caught? – and creates interest and empathy out of fear for her fate. Her acting is varied and breathtaking, credible and finely nuanced, wise and captivating. Wonder Woman, the realistic drama version.

Moshe Zonder (the first season of “Fauda”) and Omri Shenhar have written a more intelligent script than what you will find in most of the thriller-spy-politics series you've been watching recently. There are no speeches by leaders about the situation or tedious expositions.

There are no dull moments at all, and the moments of greatest tension surface in entirely intimate situations, most of them connected to terror that is not spelled out on the screen per se, but exists in our bank of cultural memories. In many scenes, during interrogations and even during a taxi ride, when Tamar doesn’t know whether the identity tailored for her in the Mossad will hold up under the mounting suspicions of oppressed people in a murderous regime – the tension is particularly effective.

In “1984,” George Orwell wrote that nobody knows what goes on in Room 101, referring to the torture chamber awaiting opponents of the regime. And still, we all know and don’t know, and that is the source of the anxiety that a drama of this type needs and depends on.

This story was originally published on June, 26, 2020.

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