Shahs Of Sunset

Shahs Of Sunset debuts tonight on Bravo at 10 p.m. Eastern.

At a pivotal moment in the relationship between the United States and Iran, along comes Shahs Of Sunset, a reality series about a clique of flashy Persian-Americans in Los Angeles. While the show is highly unlikely to foster any kind of cross-cultural understanding, it does at least prove one thing: People of Iranian descent can be at least as shallow, materialistic, and obnoxious as their fellow countrymen. In the bizarro alternate universe of reality television, this is what passes for the American dream.

In its opening minutes, Shahs explains the Persian-American lifestyle with a zippy montage that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s watched any of The Real Housewives or the dreadful copycat shows they’ve inspired. Like the Russians emigres of Brighton Beach, the Italian-Americans of New Jersey, and the Botoxed blondes of Orange County, Persians really like making money—and spending it on “gold, cars, and houses with the big columns.” Cue the requisite shots of hot babes in bikinis, chilled bottles of Cristal, and Rodeo Drive street signs. One of most vexing trends on reality TV is the way that various distinct subcultures are, inevitably, reduced to the same set of easily-digested clichés. Shahs Of Sunset is certainly guilty of this offense, portraying Persian-Americans as crass materialists with fiery tempers and tight-knit, traditional families

But to its credit, Shahs Of Sunset also tries to add some nuance and complexity to all the stereotypes. Subtitles provide explanations for the various Persian expressions and colloquialisms tossed around by the cast, who hail from relatively diverse backgrounds. For instance, at least two of them—Mike, who bears a striking resemblance to Ronnie from Jersey Shore, and Sammy, a doughy, balding playboy—are Jewish. (More than religion, real estate seems like the common thread tying the Persian community together; four cast members are real estate agents.)  

The cast also includes two skeptics wary of the blinged-out Persian-American lifestyle. M.J. is a curvaceous thirtysomething who, at least initially, seems pretty vacuous, boasting about her designer purses and treating her two pet Chihuahuas—at this point, small dogs are basically a prerequisite for Bravo-lebrities—like children. But M.J. is also outspoken about her antipathy toward marriage, something that sets her apart from other “Persian princesses.” Part of the problem, we discover, is her parents’ acrimonious marriage, which ended in divorce, and her hyper-critical mother, who tells M.J. she looks like  “a Russian peasant from one of the villages” and suggests she put on some skinny jeans. Then there’s Asa, an artist and singer whose slightly Bohemian style puts her at odds with the rest of her alleged peer group; I say “alleged” because it seems pretty obvious that Asa isn’t actually friends with the rest of the “shahs” and was brought on board the show to provide a critical perspective. (“Persians can be so materialistic; the majority in Beverly Hills don’t life a soulful life,” she laments in one scene.) But even if her presence on the show is contrived, Asa provides some much-needed balance.

Of course, no Bravo series would be complete without the Mean Girl or the Bitchy Queen, and Shahs Of Sunset easily fills its “walking caricature” quota. Reza is a self-described “gay ho” with a Nazi hairdo and a pedophile mustache. He’s obnoxious, but he at least deserves some credit for being so open about his sexuality; as one of his friends points out, if Reza still lived in Iran, he could be thrown in jail for being gay. Then there’s G.G., a 30-year-old Debra Messing lookalike who proudly boasts that “daddy” still pays all her bills. (The only two things she doesn’t like? Ants and ugly people.) So far, G.G. appears to have few, if any, redeeming qualities, other than her willingness to get in fights the average eighth grader would consider juvenile. In tonight’s episode, for instance, she lashes out at Asa for suggesting she bought her dress at H&M. (Call me crazy, but most people I know like to brag about scoring a bargain.)

The premiere of Shahs Of Sunset includes numerous references to (if not a detailed explanation of) the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The show’s producers seem to be assuming that viewers already know what happened during the revolution—or that they don’t really care. In either case, the one thing I’d like to know is just how literal the series title is: Just how elite were the cast members’ families back in pre-revolutionary Iran? Did any of them have close ties to the Shah? More than that, how do they feel about the current state of affairs in their ancestral home, and the bellicose, anti-Iranian rhetoric coming from both ends of the political spectrum? Alas, I doubt Shahs Of Sunset is likely to dig this deep. After all, H&M is easier to understand than Ahmadinejad.