THE POWER OF the TV drama Tehran, about an Israeli spy who was born in Iran to a Jewish family and returns to her birthplace to help destroy a nuclear reactor, lies partly in how it parallels reality. On the other side of the screen, President Joe Biden continues to face the fallout of President Donald Trump’s decisions to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while tensions between Iran and Israel simmer.
But relevance alone doesn’t win an International Emmy Award for Best Drama. With her lifelong ties to both Israel and Iran, Tehran’s hacker-agent Tamar Rabinyan is a unique protagonist, and Tehran perfectly executes the thrills and twists that draw people to the spy genre. The show also is violent—guns, blood, an attempted rape that ends with the killing of the attacker, and a shot of a man hanged from a crane, presumably executed by the government. The more I watched, the more I felt a pang in my chest, wondering whether Rabinyan would survive.
Tehran is not all stress, though—at least not for the viewer. Rabinyan’s family members become entangled with the show’s plot in a pleasurably Shakespearean fashion, mirroring each other and possessing information their kin may not know but the viewer does. A romance grows between Rabinyan and an Iranian hacker named Milad. When the show pauses the action to linger on characters and personal relationships, we can reflect on the humanity of Muslim and Jewish lives. Even clichéd techniques provide this opportunity, such as a scene in slo-mo—which I would have foregone for regular-speed footage—of Iranian university students protesting restrictions imposed by their government as other students counterprotest in support of the government’s conservative stance.