The Profound, and Unexpected, Cultural Punch of ‘Shahs of Sunset’
They row, gaslight, and misbehave like any stars of a Bravo reality show. But from food to kinship, language to nostalgia, the cultural pulse of ‘Shahs of Sunset’ is meaningful.
Two things happened over the last month in the hall-of-mirrors that is on-screen diversity.
One—fueled by a masterful PR strut as well as long-simmering demand—is the movie Crazy Rich Asians, which rode to No. 1 at the box office for two straight weekends, becoming the best opening for a romcom in some six years, and effectively shoring up the chances of a sequel.
Two, on the smaller screen: the Bravo bonbon that is Shahs of Sunset—a serial tracking the lives of a group Iranian-Americans in the L.A. bubble sometimes known as “Tehrangeles”—began its seventh, amazing season. Crazy Sorta-Rich Persians, you might call it: a definite accent on the crazy.
Tracing many of the usual tropes of reality programming, its cast members have not always been, ahem, aspirational, and are often just ruinous—they have all taken their turns gaslighting, double-crossing, and buck-passing—but in all the talk happening now in the culture about diversity, it is worth pointing them out.
In fact—speaking as someone who is not Persian, but of Indian descent, who has regardless always found things to identify with on the show—it is kinda fascinating to me that eons before Crazy Rich Asians and long before there was even a black 'Bachelorette,' Bravo had deigned to put on the air a whole show full of brown people, courtesy of Ryan Seacrest Productions.
Also, remarkably, half the cast are Muslim, half are Jewish, and one guy, Reza—the sorta ringleader, Reza—is a self-identifying half-Muslim, half-Jewish gay man.
Tuning into one of its most recent episodes—in a still-nascent season that has many of its cast members at a crossroads—several things were reinforced, all leaning on the quotidian, the madcap and the strange.
A quick run-down:
*Reza threw a last-minute get-together in honor of a friend whose father had just passed, and who is getting married later in the season—a woman with whom he played hooky with many years ago, but, for her upcoming wedding now, is on board to be her man-of-honor.
*Another mainstay on the show, Sherwin, showed up, in an unfortunate man-bun.
*Another regular, GG, went to see a divorce attorney about making her two-month marriage to a guy named Shalom—yes, really!—officially kaput. (It was time, she said, to “say Shalom to Shalom.”)
*Nema, a relative newcomer on the show, who calls himself a “rosé aficionado” in his Instagram bio, ordered—you got it—rosé in one scene in a bar, while stewing about a girl he almost cheated with.
*A car trip to Orange County got going a conversation between some of the Shahs about how weird it was to go there because they are “way too brown for Orange County.”
While many of the season seven interactions and narratives seem to double-down on many of the things that have spurred debate about the show since its launch—To what extent is this all a mockery of Iranian-Americans living in the U.S., or it just enough that it not does not portray all Iranians as being the from the “Axis of Evil”-style terrorists? How is it OK for Reza to be so cavalierly cruel at times, and use language like “hoes”?—this particular episode, like so many of its prized moments, also found a way of being sneakily poignant.
While getting support from her friends after the death of her dad, MJ's mother, Vida—a kind of Persian 'Mommie Dearest'—stood up to mom-splain to the room that, even though she and MJ's dad were divorced, they had loved each other since they were children, and she was by his side at the end.
Vida also recalled—and this was really the poignant part—that it was her ex-husband who had brought 13 (13!) of his siblings to America, after the revolution in Iran, and, in this way, had effectively helped hundreds to escape political and religious persecution.
Rather than just being a show in which the main characters just happen to be Persian, this particular episode really drove home to me how much of the Persian-ness is really front-and-center—be it the off-the-cuff Farsi that the Shahs seem to switch to at any given moment, or the manner in which one of its newer cast members, Destiney, showed up with a plate of halva, a popular Iranian dessert that you conventionally make to bring to a home following a death.
This reminded me of the extent to which food has always played a part on the show over its many seasons, underscoring the way in which latching on to culinary traditions has always been a mainstay of the immigration experience, and how food, more often than not, helps to act as tugboats to matters of identity and tribe.
In fact, for close watchers of Shahs, one thing that has actually always stood out is the extent to which how much they eat, on-air!
Relative to their Bravo city-sisters, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, where "lunching" is more of a suggestion than it is a tangible act, or really, most reality shows where ingestion is more theoretical than anything else, these guys will have their kebab, and eat it too.
There have been references to Persian food like gheymeh (a lentil stew), kufteh (their meatballs), and faloodeh (a frozen dessert with multiple variations). Oh, and lest we forget, the always-scene-making heaps of crispy rice, known as tadigh, which as Shervin, one of the mainstays on the show, once declared, "If you're not obsessively in love with tadigh, you're either in need of medical attention, or a Persian impostor."
Even when they are fighting the Shahs are eating.
Asa, yet another original cast member of the show, even once debuted a single, recorded in Farsi, a few years ago, in which she rapped an ode to her various favourite foods including fessenjoon and badenjoon, (pomegranate-walnut stew and eggplant yogurt dip, respectively).
Regarding the particular Shahs-ness of Shahs of Sunset, writer Maria Tallarico, a reality TV savant, made the canny point to me that “reality shows are usually actually the opposite of immigrant ethnicity - bland food and oversharing."
There have many memorable moments on the series. In one episode alone, a few years ago, we had a Shah put her dog in the freezer after being broken up over its death, and another Shah who indulged in a polygraph test over a cheating scandal that had broken out among the cast members.
But it is the raw cultural/identity arcs that have always endured the most, particularly the moment in one stand-out season when the 'Shahs' made a trip to the hills of Turkey, for the express point of visiting the border that sidles up to Iran, knowing they can never enter.
Watching them break down—and seeing how much they all seemed to be affected—brought out Terms of Endearment-level tears in me. Moreover, it was a scene that reinforced the idea that, as one recapper of the show put it, “It’s hard to have roots in a country that no longer exists the way it was when you grew up."
The extent to which we see the 'Shahs' continually play out the mores of inherited nostalgia—nostalgia that is often hand-me-down, and comes from their parents—is what has, for me and perhaps many other fans, long put the show beyond the margins of mere guilty pleasure.
Yet, as Tallarico pointed out, “There is still a tipping point of fame they haven’t hit. A Bachelor contestant gets more shine. I think they still run into a fame barrier."
An ethnic barrier to entry? Or just a reflection of how problematic this Persian party monsters can sometimes be? Could be either. Or both.
But there is even progress in some of the criticism sometimes lobbed at the show, in that diversity in storytelling does not necessarily mean whole cultures need only be shown in a positive light, but depicted in many shades. After all, nobody ever asked Richard Hatch—the iconic reality villain from Survivor—to represent all of white people, right?
The fact these brown people can be just as incorrigible and just as nasty towards each other as the white folk on, say, Vanderpump Rules? In itself, that is progress.