Israeli TV show 'Tehran' goes global

The producers are hoping that Tehran can draw an international audience once it debuts on Apple and that it will become a talked-about hit the way Fauda and Shtisel have.

NIV SULTAN as a Mossad agent in ‘Tehran.’  (photo credit: COURTESY KAN 11)
NIV SULTAN as a Mossad agent in ‘Tehran.’
(photo credit: COURTESY KAN 11)
 ‘We always felt we were doing something good,” said Dana Eden, one of the creators of Tehran, the Israeli television series that recently wrapped up its first season on KAN 11 and which will be broadcast soon internationally on Apple TV+. “But it succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and we are very grateful for that.”
The producers are hoping that Tehran can draw an international audience once it debuts on Apple and that it will become a talked-about hit the way Fauda and Shtisel have. Neither Eden nor a representative of Apple TV+ could give a date when Tehran would be shown.
Tehran became must-see TV for a wide Israeli audience, rare in the era of streaming and bingeing. Although KAN, the government channel, posted Tehran episodes on its website following each broadcast that were available for free, the series was so popular that most chose to watch the 9:15 p.m. broadcast on Mondays so they wouldn’t have to be in suspense a single day. And news events conspired to make the series even more topical: In the weeks that Tehran was broadcast, a series of explosions took place at military and nuclear sites around Iran.
“I want to thank the Israeli public that made it a hit, who made its audience grow more from week to week,” she said. “We spent six years developing the show and it’s great to see it catch on.” 
The success is particularly sweet because the series was turned down by several networks, including, reportedly, Keshet. While it has been reported that Apple paid $1 million per episode for the eight-part series – huge money in the Israeli TV world, which operates on shoestring budgets – Eden would not confirm or deny this, saying only, “Apple paid a very nice price.”
The series is focused on a strong female protagonist, Tamar (Niv Sultan), a young Mossad agent from an Iranian family who is sent into Tehran to destabilize the Iranian nuclear program. The lion’s share of the action takes place in Iran and, while her Mossad handlers and commanders, played by Menashe Noy and Liraz Charchi, are key characters, much of the cast consisted of Iranian actors, playing both government agents and dissidents. 
The dissident side of Iran has very rarely been portrayed on screen and it was fascinating to see the divisions among these dissidents who, in the show’s telling, ranged from rave-goers who are basically fighting for their right to party, to more principled political protesters, like Milad (Shervin Alenabi), a hacker who is willing to use his skills to cripple the power grid and harm nuclear plants.
In addition to shedding light on the dissidents’ world, the series also gave a showcase to the very talented Iranian acting diaspora. Just as Europeans fleeing the Nazis brought a wealth of diversity and talent to Hollywood starting in the 1930s, Iranians who wanted to live a life free of the restrictions of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been leaving the country for decades and a fair number have gone into acting. 
Several of the most celebrated of these actors appear in Tehran. These include Navid Negahban, whom Homeland viewers remember as Abu Nazir, and who starred in the Ophir-Award winning Israeli film Baba Joon by Yuval Delshad. Negahban portrays the owner of a travel agency who is helping the Mossad in Tehran. 
Shaun Toub, one of a handful of Jewish Iranians in the acting world, who played the brutal Javadi in Homeland, is equally compelling as an Iranian agent who figures out what Tamar is up to, but who handles the situation in surprising ways.
SOME MEMBERS of the Israeli cast, such as Charchi, who also has a singing career and records songs in Farsi, are fluent in Farsi, but Sultan did not know the language. Eden said she did the equivalent of a Farsi ulpan for four months to get up to speed. The creators also worked with academics who are experts on Iran so they could realistically create the world of the dissidents and the daily lives of other Iranian characters, such as a young woman involved in a pro-regime group who goes to demonstrations holding signs with slogans like, “I love my hijab.”
In addition to Eden, the series creators are Maor Kohn, Omri Shenhar and Daniel Syrkin, all Israeli television industry veterans, as well as Moshe Zonder, one of the writers who made Fauda. All of them are skilled at getting audiences on the edge of their seats and each episode – including the last, but no spoilers here – ended on a cliffhanger. There was some grousing on social media that the final episode was a disappointment, but it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t watch it till the end.
Another interesting aspect of Tehran’s success is that it has drawn attention to the KAN network, which has had well-regarded series in the past, but none that has become so popular. If KAN is lucky, the Tehran audience will carry over to its latest original series, Manayak, a gritty police drama that is being shown in the same time slot.
While in the past, television viewers abroad who wanted to see Israeli shows either had to wait for remakes or watch Netflix, which currently features about 10 Israeli series, Apple TV+ is looking to challenge Netflix’s distinction as the go-to streaming option for people who want to watch Israeli television.
Apple is set to start showing Losing Alice, a psychological drama starring Ayelet Zurer, who appeared opposite Tom Hanks in the movie Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. Losing Alice is running in Israel on Hot and it was also featured in the global online film festival We Are One last spring. The series is a kind of noir version of All About Eve, as Zurer plays a television director who is no longer an A-lister and who becomes obsessed with a brash young screenwriter, played by newcomer Lihi Kornowski.
Apple TV+ is also involved in producing a miniseries by Israel’s premier international star, Gal Gadot, and her production company, about the Austrian-Jewish Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr, who was also an inventor. Gadot will star as Lamarr. The series was originally being developed by Showtime but moved to Apple.
Apple is also making an American remake of the Israeli series from Keshet, When Heroes Fly (which is currently available in Hebrew on Netflix – this can get confusing).
Another high-profile series that is set to be released in the coming year is a remake of Your Honor, a prize-winning Israeli series. The remake from CBS stars Bryan Cranston in the role of a judge whose son kills the child of a Mafia kingpin in a traffic accident. The series is being created by Robert and Michelle King, the team behind The Good Wife, and executive produced by Alon Aranya, one of the producers on Tehran.
Shtisel is currently filming its third season, and Shira Haas, who plays Ruchama on the show, was just nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the Netflix series Unorthodox and was just featured on the cover of Variety.
While Shtisel is already a hit on Netflix, there are dozens of Israeli series now in various stages of production, all of whose producers hope they will be the next Tehran.