I’m pretty addicted to the spy genre, just to get that out of the way first. I’m currently working my way through True Spies, for example, a podcast narrated by actresses Hayley Atwell and Vanessa Kirby that offers just what the title suggests — a recounting of true stories from the lives of real spies, covering everything from the Cold War to the 2000s-era War on Terror. Likewise, whenever novelists like Daniel Silva and David Ignatius, all masters of the spy thriller genre, release something new, that book is in my hands on day one. All of which is to say, when I heard that Apple’s Netflix rival had landed an espionage thriller from writer Moshe Zonder (who’s also worked on Fauda, another magnificent Israeli espionage thriller which airs on Netflix), I was counting down the days.
All that said, let’s go ahead and get my verdict on Tehran out of the way: This Apple TV+ series easily filled the Homeland-sized hole in my life, and, in my opinion, is actually an improvement in many ways over Showtime’s much-celebrated hit series.
Apple’s promotional material for the series make reference to some of the following, so it’s not spoiling anything to reveal that in the first moments of Episode 1 (titled Emergency Landing in Tehran), the show pretty quickly makes clear to the viewer that the tech wizards in Israel’s Mossad have partially borked a commercial airline flight on the way to India. Consequently, a decision is made to quickly land the plane en route in Tehran, where the passengers will be switched to a different plane to continue on their journey.
You can probably guess where this is going. The emergency landing provides cover in order for the Mossad to insert the heroine of Tehran, an Israeli hacker named Tamar, into the city. Everything going according to plan would mean no one in Tehran knows who she is, and no one in Tehran even knows she’s there.
Everything does not go according to plan.
The best espionage thrillers, in my opinion, balance a fascinating look at the tradecraft we don’t get to see — a glimpse of the secret world behind the curtain, as it were — mixed with the randomness of ordinary life. Events rarely transpire 100% the way you plan them, and it’s great when a show like this embraces that reality. To wit: The Israelis had everything ready to go. Our hacker, incognito, is seated on the plane beside a handler as the first episode gets under way. The geeks had done their trickery sufficient to get the plane to land where they need it to, in Tehran.
Everyone thought this impossible thing was being set in motion and about to go off without a hitch.
And then … two Israeli teenagers board the plane at the last minute. A guy and a girl, the latter wearing a sporty jacket, headphones around her neck and a shirt that says “Awesome” in bright letters.
Remember what’s about to happen?
Two Israeli teenagers think they’re going on vacation, but their plan is about to make an emergency stop in Iran. They’ll have to actually step onto Iranian soil on their way to another airplane.
At the appointed time, the voice of the captain comes over the speakers, telling passengers that there’s been a mechanical problem. But not to worry — just a quick changing of planes in Tehran, and then everyone will be back in the sky and on their way.
The teenagers look at each other with pale faces. Their faces say it all. We know what they’re thinking. Under no circumstances can they land in Iranian soil, and actually get up out of a seat and walk voluntarily through an Iranian airport, with Iranian citizens bustling around them (and Iranian secret police no doubt nearby). They start to freak out.
The plane lands.
Everyone gets off, filing out of the cabin and making their way down the jet bridge.
The camera turns back inside, showing us that … the two Israeli kids haven’t moved. They are literally frozen in their seats, both staring straight ahead. Neither one saying a word. I’ll be honest, I sort of felt my own legs freeze a little. There’s no way I, as an American, could get myself up out of that seat.
Eventually, an airline employee walks over to them, calmly explaining that they both have to get up. Everything is going to be fine. I’ll escort you myself. Everything will be fine. You’ll see. And besides — if you don’t get up, I’ll have to call for help, and you definitely don’t want me to do that.
Slowly, the two kids gather their things. They start shuffling down the aisle of the now-empty plane. Out of the cabin. Down the jet bridge.
They’re almost to the end.
And then —
A handful of serious-looking Iranian agents step from around the corner and into view, demanding their passports.
The girl throws up. This cannot be happening. They’re just two regular Israeli kids, supposed to be on their way to vacation. And now, somehow, they’ve landed and found themselves literally on Iranian soil, about to be hauled off to God knows where.
I won’t spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that this one interaction sets the rest of the events in the 8-episode series into motion. Making Tehran another worthwhile addition to the slowly growing Apple TV+ inventory of content, as the service approaches its 1st-year anniversary.
Overall, I found Tehran to be taut and utterly thrilling, while also not being overly violent or disturbing. And, I should add, it is almost exclusively about espionage — it’s not, as we saw with Homeland, a series filled with the over-the-top misadventures and relationship drama of its main characters while it also, oh yeah, happens to be a spy show as well.
In terms of the cast, the show stars a young Israeli actress named Niv Sultan (Flawless, She Has It, Temporarily Dead), as well as Shaun Toub (Homeland, Crash), international star Navid Negahban (Homeland, Legion, Aladdin), Shervin Alenabi (Baghdad in My Shadow), Liraz Charhi (A Late Quartet) and Menashe Noy (Big Bad Wolves, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem).
Apple partnered with Cineflix Rights and Israeli network Kan 11 to co-produce Tehran. The series was created by Zonder, Dana Eden, and Maor Kohn, and it was directed by Daniel Syrkin. Omri Shenhar serves as writer alongside Zonder. Executive producers include Zonder, Eden, Shula Spiegel, Alon Aranya, Julien Leroux, Peter Emerson and Eldad Koblenz, and the show was produced by Donna and Shula Productions in association with Paper Plane Productions, with the participation of Cineflix Rights and Cosmote TV.