In Other Words

900 Channels of the Great Satan

In Iran's latest TV obsession, the Ugly American is -- themselves.

ASTRID RIECKEN for The Washington Post via Getty Images
ASTRID RIECKEN for The Washington Post via Getty Images

For years, most Iranians have understood the United States through expat tales, condemnatory sermons about the Great Satan — and the Spider-Man films. This year, however, they have a new show called Satellite that offers an unfamiliar and bizarrely twisted portrayal of an America so tawdry that charlatans hawk their own mothers for $20 and sex-chat-room perverts aspire to political leadership of Iran. Set in an imagined Los Angeles among the city’s large Iranian diaspora, Satellite, an hourlong show that’s available on YouTube as well as on DVD in corner stores everywhere in Iran, offers a burlesque parody that is not merely shocking but also depressingly revealing about the state of establishment Iran’s once-proud attitude toward its expat community. Iran has long had its highly publicized version of the Ugly American; now, it seems, the country is embracing something else entirely: the Ugly Iranian-American.

The show, made by Mehran Modiri, the king of mainstream Iranian television, opens in the living room of an urban, middle-class Iranian family gathered in front of its newly installed illegal satellite dish. "From five channels to 900!" marvels the father, as the unnamed family crowds eagerly onto the couch for a first glimpse at the outside world. Soon, however, the parents are eyeing one another in dismay: The 900 channels are beaming a polluted America into their living room. The rest of the show consists of screen-within-a-screen skits as the family flips from channel to channel, increasingly appalled at the corruption they witness, acting as a sort of living-room Greek chorus as the camera pans between the frivolous U.S. shows on television and the staid, hypocritical family (the pious-looking father asks the dish installer for access to sex channels) watching and reacting in occasional titillation but, mostly, horror.

Most of the clips focus on ordinary Iranian-Americans, portraying them as drug-addicted, promiscuous, amoral loons. The show is busy with flamboyant gay men who cause the family much alarm as they wiggle their hips and flap their hands on-screen, speaking in screeching tones. "Is that a man or a woman?" the father asks his wife, frantically trying to change the channel. Another clip shows a New Age pop psychologist counseling a new mother to hurl her infant into the air to ensure its well-being and a man to squeeze his terminally ill father to death: "Keep squeezing, squeeze, and chant for the illness to leave your father’s body." When the caller says his father has died, the quack goes back to selling his "happiness DVDs," a swipe at the faddishness of therapy within the Iranian-American diaspora (Persian-language therapy cruises not being uncommon in places like Los Angeles).

These cartoonish Iranian-Americans aren’t simply crass, foolish, and wicked — they’re also shown to be deracinated hypocrites, despite their oft-professed nostalgia. In one skit, a female singer recounts her homesickness to an interviewer in Los Angeles. "My Iranian identity is very important to me. I missed home so much that I boarded a plane and counted the seconds till my return," she says. "So you flew to Tehran?" the interviewer asks. "No, I flew here!"

And then there are the skits that accuse Iranian-Americans of fomenting revolution. Modiri himself appears as a fake talk-show host in a parody of the armchair revolutionaries and Persian nationalists who exhort Iranians inside the country to rise up, from their comfortable perches in Beverly Hills and Westwood. Seated in a wood-paneled library beside Iran’s pre-1979 flag, Modiri bellows at Iranians for their weak-kneed response to dictatorship. "Idiots! Traitors! I’m not after power or wealth; I don’t want to be president or head of parliament," he assures. "At the very most I would run state broadcasting."

Another skit features Mr. Tondar, an aged, mustachioed contender who raspingly refers to himself as "potential prime minister of Iran." An outraged caller from Iran rebukes him: "You’ve sat across the world for 30 years going to bars and cabarets, gambling, smoking your opium, eating your kebab. Now you want to make political plans for us?" In response, Tondar says: "Get your facts straight. I haven’t touched red meat in 40 years." The family exchanges sidelong glances, appalled.

Toward the show’s latter half, as a Brüno-esque beautician advises a caller to beat his new wife, the family in the living room is seen vomiting into trash bins; eventually their sofa sits empty. The verdict is clear: Five channels are better than 900, and America is no place for good, upstanding Iranians.

If you’re sensing a political viewpoint behind this entertainment, you wouldn’t be wrong. Modiri, the producer of Satellite, is a complex figure in Iran’s cultural landscape. As state broadcasting’s highest-grossing producer, he has unique leeway to poke fun at the government’s failings, reflecting the cynicism that pervades Iranian daily life while usually returning to a comfortably status quo stance at the end. He has been behind nearly all the biggest hit shows of the past decade. The most popular, a comic soap called Barareh Nights, was set in a village embodying many flaws of modern-day Iran, complete with rigged elections, a scheme to enrich nuclear peas, a corrupt city council, and a harassed town newspaper. Satellite, too, takes as its starting premise a realistic commentary about the state of law-abiding in Iran; by most estimates, at least half the country defies the government’s ban on satellite TV, just like the bumbling family on the show, oblivious to complaints like this recent Friday prayer sermon rant from Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami: "These satellite channels, which act against the Iranian government, have only one objective: to attack Islam, our Islamic government, and the great people of Iran."

"This show is one of the savviest things the regime has ever done," an advisor to a senior ayatollah once told me about Barareh Nights, likening Modiri’s brand of comedy to a pressure valve that deflates Iranian frustration with the state of the country. In other words, it’s propaganda — just far more sophisticated than the brand churned out by the ayatollahs themselves.

In Satellite, Modiri steps away from his usual formula: a gentle critique of the regime that ends by validating Iranians’ cynical apathy. The new show is crude, with no reflection of Iranians’ aspirational pride in the American diaspora — a group that, as even grocers in Tehran can tell you, includes the founder of eBay and an astronaut who traveled to the International Space Station. The grotesque caricatures in Satellite may reflect a shift in either the establishment’s perception of Iranian sentiment or the regime’s agenda for darkening America’s reputation in its citizens’ eyes, or both.

It’s certainly true that America’s image has dulled since the collapse of the Green Revolution and the successes of the Arab Spring. But though mainstream Iranians feel betrayed by what they see as Washington’s tepid reaction to their aborted rebellion, they are tuning into satellite television from the United States more avidly than ever — and so is the regime. In fact, even in mocking the diaspora, the regime finds itself in a bind: to appeal to young Iranians it must adopt the style of the very expatriate shows it seeks to challenge. The Voice of America’s Parazit, a Iranian version of The Daily Show produced in Washington, is so popular in Iran that state television has begun producing a number of shows meant to mock and undermine it, including Just for Your Information!, 20:30, and Heart Attack. As a caller from Iran tells Modiri on the fake political talk show in Satellite: "We have no hope, no happiness, no fun but for your channel."

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