The real shame in ‘The Shahs of Sunset’

I made it 31 minutes into the over-hyped “Shahs of Sunset” before switching it off, less out of offense than of boredom.

The new reality show from Ryan Seacrest productions is a stunningly unoriginal look at L.A.’s Iranian-American community, but because it is the first such glimpse at the much vaunted culture, it raised the right eyebrows, and received a sufficient amount of pre-premiere attention.

Writing in The Jewish Journal, Iranian-American novelist Gina Nahai lambasted the show, saying that it panders to the worst of reality TV tastes, shoveling up stereotypes by the boatload and avoiding any kind of thoughtful realism.

“To say that it’s ‘Bad’ would be a redundancy, given that it’s a so-called ‘reality show,’” Nahai wrote. “Everything — from the characters’ wardrobes, to their speech, to their relationships, and even their homes and cars and purported millions — is dreamed up by ‘story editors’ (read underpaid, non-unionized writers) and show producers [and is] meant to appeal to the audience’s basest instincts — racism, voyeurism, willingness to suspend intelligent thinking — and to remind its critics that viewers get what they deserve. [I]n the case of ‘The Shahs’… the producers have gone out of their way to put together a cast of unattractive, unsophisticated, unproductive and — you’re going to have to believe me on this — most unrepresentative-of-the original characters possible.”

If it seemed that even one of the show’s six main characters might have a deeper thought than what they’re ordering for dinner tonight, Nahai’s diatribe might sting. But fortunately for “The Shahs” crew, sophisticated criticism is fated to drown in the deep end of the pool. Which coheres nicely with the show’s opening narration, in which one character declares, “My parents sacrificed everything for me to be free,” and another concludes, “So we ended up in Beverly Hills.”

In Sunday’s New York Times, Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian-American author and journalist, expressed her dismay with what she deemed the show’s most egregious misnomer: the use of the word “Persian”.

Oh, it’s the label for Islamic-Republic-disliking Iranians!” Khakpour writes facetiously, about the excuse she used to give when asked about her Persian designation. “Or it’s what Iranians who used to be fancy prefer!

When Khakpour became an adult, she said she abandoned “convenient euphemisms” and insisted upon describing herself as Iranian, especially in the post 9/11 years. But now, with unflattering headlines about Iranian nuclear proliferation clogging the news, depicting a cruel, authoritarian regime, Persian is sounding pretty good.

“On the show, which follows a group of well-heeled friends in Los Angeles, ‘Persian’ is thrown around as if ‘Iranian’ never existed,” Khakpour writes. “But who could blame them? If it’s a bad time for Iranians, just maybe it’s a great time for Persians.”

Thus Khakpour touches on the only interesting thing about the show: its staging of identity politics.

While foreign policy regarding Iran has prompted an atmosphere of “neurotic defense and justification” for those cut from Iranian—or is it Persian?—cloth, the show is complicating those labels by focusing on a group of immigrants who are, according to Khakpour, “particularly American specimens of Iranian descent.”

Which is all a convoluted way of saying, that it isn’t their Iranian-ness or Persian-ness that is offensive, it’s their American-ness, of course.

“[E]ureka! rest easy, Iranians!” Khakpour practically squeals. The show, “is only American culture, mainlined and snorted to overdose, specifically, the new-money culture of Westside Los Angeles, where too many ethnic minorities fashioned their lives in the image of their affluent white predecessors.”

Phew. It isn’t Persian culture, values, or affluence that are to blame, after all. It’s what happens when those “realities” meet Rodeo Drive.

So when GG, the show’s resident Persian princess swears off her own kind, saying, “Persian boys are momma’s boys. They expect you to cook, to clean, and to do all that, and I would never even do any of that for someone”—what she’s really articulating is an American value, not a Persian one. And when MJ’s racist mother tells her that Jewish girls don’t make good wives because once they get married, they “lose themselves” and become “fat and ugly,” that too is derivative of American thinking.

Real estate entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, who could be called a real-life Shah of Sunset, painted a slightly different picture of his culture when I asked him about it during a 2009 interview. What he described was a Persian pride in exclusivity and excess.

“A lot of people in our culture do things to impress the community,” he said. “There’s a lot in Persian culture that’s gorgeous, rich in tradition, but there’s a lot of negativity in the culture, which has taken the worst of both Persian and American culture. A lot of it is insincerity, superficiality, doing things because you have to not because you want to—like having a wedding for 2,000 people just because you want to invite everybody and show them how important you are.”

He added: “Any community that for hundreds of years wasn’t allowed to have any luxury [and then they relocate and become successful], the first thing you do—I think it’s human nature—is you want to show that. It’s kind of a little bit of that chip on your shoulder, like, ‘Hey listen! We made it.’”

Ironically, the only mildly amusing conversation that occurs in “The Shahs” premiere episode, comes during a dinner outing, when the whole crew discusses cultural stigmas regarding whom can marry whom: Can Persian Jews marry Persian Muslims? Do Persian guys date outside the tribe but only marry in?

“I can’t believe we’re having this stupid conversation this day and age about religion,” one of the guys later says to the camera. “There’s Persian Muslims, Persian Jews, Persian Christians, there’s Bahais—how much more of this bullshit do we have to talk about?”

Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin.