“Tehran” spins a striking tale of modern spycraft despite a wobbly start

Tehran Niv Sultan in Tehran. (Apple TV+)

Moshe Zonder, Dana Eden, and Maor Kohn’s new espionage series boasts solid acting and craft in the face of some wonky storytelling.

Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan) is a Mossad agent bound for Tehran. Her mission? To sabotage the Iranian military’s radar systems so that the Israeli Air Force can destroy a nuclear reactor before it comes online. Faraz Kamali (Shaun Toub) is an Iranian counter-intelligence agent. His mission? To prevent foreign operatives from infiltrating and damaging the country.

When Tamar’s mission goes sideways due to unforeseen circumstances, she must evade her relentless pursuers, attempt to salvage her derailed operation, and try to keep her job from devouring her humanity. When Faraz realizes that a spy has successfully gotten into Tehran, he must attempt to capture her while supporting his wife, Naahid (Shila Omni), as she undergoes brain surgery in France and trying to keep his job from devouring his humanity. The inevitable escalation will test both of them.

Created by Moshe Zonder, Dana Eden, and Maor Kohn, Tehran is a pretty good piece of espionage fiction. Its opening act is undercut by a surfeit of subplots and an initially underdeveloped protagonist. But it improves significantly in its back half, pitting Tamar and Faraz not only against each other but also against the distinct yet all-too-similar costs of their respective trades. Tehran’s greatest success is its exploration of the merciless spiral of modern intelligence work and the price of that spiral its practitioners pay.

Tehran

Tamar starts out as more a cipher than a character. This isn’t a fault of Sultan’s performance; she consistently does solid work as the young spy. Rather, it’s the result of her initial storyline focusing far more on the consequences of her presence than herself. Throughout Tehran’s first half, Tamar interacts with a range of supporting characters whose story arcs would have benefited tremendously from compression or expansion, or even outright elimination.

As it stands, these subplots are interesting but underdeveloped. They’re prominent enough that they eat a significant chunk of Tamar’s early series screen time but brief enough that their endings feel rather abrupt. Tamar bounces between them and doesn’t really have a chance to breathe as a character until Tehran hits the halfway point.

Once the pieces of Tamar’s story—that she’s an Iranian-born Jew, new and good at her job, and still building up her emotional armor—gel, Sultan is able to bring Tamar into clearer focus. She’s aiming to complete her mission but disconcerted by those who don’t draw as clear a line between necessary and unnecessary violence on the job. She’s aiming to do right, and she doesn’t want to lose sight of which way is up.

Faraz, on the other hand, benefits from a much more direct story setup. Whereas Tamar’s arc takes a few episodes to home in on her, Faraz’s focuses on him from the starting gun. He’s a tremendously skilled counterintelligence operative who loves his wife and is trying to be more present for her. Though results are mixed, he and Naahid are honest about the work. When Faraz realizes that Tamar is in Tehran, he goes to work. But even with his decades of experience, this investigation will challenge him like never before.

The warmth Toub brings to scenes between Faraz and Naahid contrasts sharply with his ruthless pragmatism on the job. However, both modes are recognizably the same man. (A late series sequence that sees Faraz shift between empathetic and vicious and back again over the course of a conversation is a particular highlight.) Toub makes Faraz’s personal and professional faces bleed into one another. They never quite merge, but the boundary between them becomes porous, and the result is compelling, unsettling acting.

Tehran’s greatest success is its exploration of the merciless spiral of modern intelligence work and the price of that spiral its practitioners pay.

Outside of Sultan and Toub’s work as the leads, Tehran is well-made and mostly well-written television. Director Daniel Syrkin stages his set pieces tensely and demonstrates a particular knack for drawing tension out of motion during the show’s set pieces. Whether it’s something as dramatic as leaping out a window or as quiet as noticing a message on someone else’s phone, Tehran pays attention to who’s where, what they see, and what they need to do while they’re there. It’s compelling at the least, and often quite thrilling.

That said, Tehran’s writing is shakier than its directing, especially in its earlier episodes. The side characters introduce heavy material that doesn’t always get the space it needs. Sexual harassment and assault, the conflict between young reformers and young conservatives in Iran, and the fraught relationship between expatriate Iranian Jews and their home country all battle for narrative attention.

But once Tehran hits its back half, the writing stabilizes and gets stronger. It focuses on the consequences of spycraft both on the world and on its practitioners. Mossad is not a shining beacon of heroism. Iran is not full of sneering villains. The moves each side makes are not so much heroic or villainous as ruthlessly pragmatic and goal-oriented. When things get personal in Tehran, the series takes that directly into account. The consequences of Tamar and Faraz’s actions shape who they become and do so in ways that feel genuine.

While this first series has its growing pains, there’s quite a lot to dig in it. It also ends on a strong cliffhanger, and to its credit, the promise of a follow-up is more exciting than underwhelming.

Tehran debuts on Apple TV+ this Friday, September 25.

Tehran Season 1 Trailer:

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