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.