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Persian Dolls

Shahs of Sunset, Bravo’s latest Hobbesian experiment on the lives of the nouveau riche, is a fascinating piece of television—in spite of itself

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Some members of the cast of Shahs of Sunset. (Colleen E. Hayes/Bravo)
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Persian Gulf

Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution made them exiles, the Persian Jews of Los Angeles are split in new ways by an old question: how much to hold on to religious and cultural traditions forged in a country that now hates them

Who is the Persian Mafia? According to the renowned 20th-century social scientist Cher Horowitz, who noted as she breezed past a claque of swarthy, cell-phone-wielding beauties encased in the finest gold chains and stretch leather money can buy, in the opening montage of Clueless: “You can’t hang with them unless you have a BMW and a Mercedes.”

More than 15 years have passed since Prof. Horowitz’s seminal observation—I know, we are so, so old—and the Ryan Seacrest-produced Shahs of Sunset, Bravo’s latest televised Hobbesian experiment chronicling the unexamined lives of the nouveau riche and those who long desperately to join their poolside-idling, bronze-limbed, Restylane-basted ranks, seems to indicate that the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and the increasing drumbeat of phantom missiles on Natanz have done little to change the Westwood-ensconced Tehrangeleno community. For its members, money talks and materialism rules. A major fight of the first episode revolves around one of the women (Asa, the arty one, who dresses like something out of a Delcroix painting set at Burning Man, refers to herself as a “Modern Persian gypsy bohemian,” and, as such, typically considers herself above such frivolity) snidely accusing another (G.G., the princess-y one, who boasts that she has somehow made it to the ripe old age of 30 with “my only paycheck coming from Daddy,” an arrangement that is surely less creepy than she makes it sound) of actually wearing H&M.

But with the twin shadows of the Islamic Revolution and the American immigrant experience hanging over the expensively blow-dried heads of its stars, Shahs of Sunset is a fascinating piece of television—basically, in spite of itself. As others have noted, as the juggernaut of reality television sweeps into its third decade undaunted, the cast is clearly steeped in the conventions of the genre, eternally ready with a practiced bitchy quip or manufactured conflict, yet there are hints of depth here that all the flashy cars and designer labels can’t quite hide. Mercedes Javid may crow about her independence as an unmarried woman and pride herself on telling “sassy” truths like “Relationship equals break-up; marriage equals divorce” (to a friend trying on wedding dresses, no less), but she can’t quite keep from wilting when her imperious mother casts a disapproving eye over the loose black dress concealing MJ’s zaftig form, even as she falls all over her daughter’s wealthy friend Sammy, ladling food and flattery on his plate in equally lavish portions. The aforementioned G.G. declares: “There are two things I hate: ants and ugly people,” but the pre-nose job, pre-electrolysis, pre-Americanization photos of her (and others) with which the producers gleefully bookend this superficially noxious statement lift it out of the realm of garden-variety reality show vapidity into a statement on the frantic anxiety of an outsider trying—and worried she’s failing—to live up to the stringent standards of mainstream American beauty that any first-generation Jewish girl, from Fanny Brice to Baby Houseman, would recognize.

Most poignant, perhaps, is Reza, an openly gay real-estate agent and Freddie Mercury lookalike—not so coincidentally; Freddie Mercury being the descendant of Zoroastrian Parsis who fled the Muslim conquest of Iran in the 10th century—whose constant and flamboyant assertions of his fabulousness have hardened into a kind of spray-tanned armor against the fact that, in the words of his friend Sammy, “if he went back to Iran today, they’d probably kill him.” The baggage may be Louis Vuitton, but that doesn’t make it any easier to carry.

That the friendship between Reza and Sammy, and indeed, of the whole group (most of whom seem to have either gone to high school together or grown up just blocks away) exists may be the most interesting aspect of the show. Sammy and his friend Mike, a gym-handsome property developer who has recently moved back to L.A. after losing his shirt in the real-estate crash in Vegas, are Jewish; G.G., Asa, and Reza are Muslim. For me, the jury’s still out on M.J. (the L.A. Persians have jammed my east coast Ashkenazi Jewdar system), and that’s somehow telling. Much as any lingering distaste between German and Eastern European Jews dissolved in the terrible crucible of the Holocaust, any tension between the Persian Jews and the Westernized Muslim upper classes seems not to have made it into the single suitcase with which their mutual families fled the ayatollahs. Catastrophe is the great leveler; they’re all Persian, and that’s what counts. When G.G. scornfully ribs Mike (for whom she clearly has a bit of thing) that he would happily marry a Jewish girl who wasn’t Persian, but not a Persian girl who wasn’t Jewish, it’s clear which she considers the bigger betrayal.

Bravo executives have been accused of vile cynicism in releasing Shahs of Sunset at a time when the voices calling for war with Iran have never been louder. Perhaps it’s true; they’re certainly not above exploiting a personal tragedy for ratings—why not a geopolitical one? And yet, watching the show, I felt oddly inspired. The never-ending conflict in the Middle East (and between Israel and Iran in particular) is so often framed in apocalyptic terms, particularly by those who have a vested interest, be it financial or spiritual, in continuing it. Ahura Mazda vs. Angra Mainyu—if you’ll allow me make use of my girlhood fascination with Zoroastrianism one more show-offy time. As though these two peoples have been implacable, inevitable enemies from the beginning of time and the only solution is for one to destroy the other beyond any hope of recovery, à la Harry Potter and Voldemort: “Neither can live while the other survives.” It’s easy to forget that, far from being a natural state, prejudice is something you have to work at. For all its vapidity, Shahs of Sunset shows us that there’s nothing inevitable about hatred. Just don’t wear H&M to the peace talks. Please.

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Great piece. I watched about twenty minutes of the show and found it excruciatingly boring even by the standards of reality television, to my disappointment.

Gordon Schochet says:

What in the world is a “Hobbesian experiment”? Surely Ms. Shukert did not intend the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who is perhaps best known for his description of life in the every-person-for-him/herself state of nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Wait till Trita Parsi shows up in episode 5.

I don`t know about the program, but I love
the way you string words together like:

“frantic anxiety of an outsider to live up
to the stringent standards of mainstream
American beauty” and

“lingering distaste between German and East European Jews”

Hey, maybe a little more entertaining, if a lot more crass, this week.

I don’t think MJ is Jewish. Last week, her mother warned Sammy that “Jewish women lose themselves in marriage” and become “fat and ugly” and this week, MJ commented that “in the Persian Jewish community, there aren’t that many of them that aren’t inbred.” You can see her quote here (about 25 seconds in): http://www.bravotv.com/shahs-of-sunset/season-1/videos/parties-and-pressure

Nadav says:

She’s Jewish.

Logic says:

Note to Jill,
I don’t know what MJ’s background is, but you can’t tell anything from her comment. It is not inaccurate, but neither is it anti-Semitic, as the Persian Muslim community also has a high rate of marriage between cousins. Marrying one’s first cousin is not only accepted, but preferred, throughout most countries in the Middle East, where rates are 20-50%, in order to keep wealth in the family, among other reasons. Muslims in India and Pakistan follow this custom as well. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cousin_marriage_in_the_Middle_East

It’s a shame that the show wastes an opportunity to provide a window into a minority culture unknown to most people in the U.S., and instead focuses on the mindless waste of money for superficial purposes and aimless existence of its young subjects. Not to mention the lack of anything actually happening, except for G.G.’s fake explosions and picking fights with everyone that seem to stem from her vast insecurities. Although it’s good that the group of friends contains both Jewish and Muslim members, none of whom pay much attention to their differing religions. Hopefully that point won’t be completely lost on most viewers, who will only see the staged fireworks.

Sunny says:

You should read up a bit on the history of Jews in Iran before yakking on about the tensions between them and Muslim Iranians. Jews were actually well integrated into Iranian life up until the revolution. It was the revolution that created that split. But since most of these people here left b/c they disagree with the current regime, it’s probably safe to say that they didn’t pick up the anti-semitism of the current regime.

Most Iranians I know have loads of Jewish friends.

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Persian Dolls

Shahs of Sunset, Bravo’s latest Hobbesian experiment on the lives of the nouveau riche, is a fascinating piece of television—in spite of itself

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