‘Shahs of Sunset’: Roll out the Persian smug
By Hank Stuever,
Over time, reality TV has exploited a variety of racial and ethnic groups who, once processed through the magic machine, all came out looking and acting very much the same. A Snooki is a Khloe is a NeNe.
By now we’ve seen that just about anyone can — when encouraged by producers — evince a certain bratty, even Trumpian sense of self-regard. Doesn’t matter if they’re white, black or Other (especially Other); or whether they hail from New Jersey, Russia, Orange County or India; or whether they live at the beach, on the bayous or in high-rises. They always come off looking unctuously spoiled.
People seen on these shows may occasionally speak to the importance of their cultural heritage and claim some special individuality therein, but soon enough they all get into the same fights, spit the same insults at one another, speed off in the same luxury SUVs and return to similar looking McMansion foyers that feature acres of marble. Almost to a person they show off their hard-won classiness with expensive shoes and handbags. They brag about the size of their real-estate deals. Only the slang changes.
Bravo’s depressingly pat chronicle of the lives of the “Shahs of Sunset” (premiering Sunday night) follows a group of six well-off Beverly Hills residents of Persian descent, all in their 30s but for one. Most of them trace their all-American, upper-class identity to their parents having fled the 1979 Iranian revolution and the demise of the shah of Iran. Their families grabbed what they could and immigrated to the United States; some came with nothing.
A generation later, the offspring have made up for lost time, living as legends in their own minds. Reza Farahan — a gay real-estate bigwig — can’t shut up about his deserved success and taste for finer things. His lifelong gal pal, Mercedes “MJ” Javid, works in his real estate office, has a hard-core shoe addiction and carts her tiny dogs around in a pink baby stroller. (When was this filmed? 2004?)
The two are friends with Sammy Younai, a property developer and party hound; and Mike Shouhed, a buff-bodied real-estate agent who lost his hat in the Las Vegas housing meltdown. Mike is something of a toxic bachelor, dumping girlfriends as soon as he finds them; he is enmeshed in alternate bouts of flirting and fighting with Golnesa “GG” Gharachedaghi, a pampered daddy’s girl. They are all alums of Beverly Hills High School and know one another, we are told, because all Persians in Beverly Hills know one another. The insularity is immediately suffocating.
Worse, it seems as if Bravo is tempting its audience to partake in a subtle and outdated form of mild xenophobia. We learn that for all the flirting, Mike would never be too interested in GG’s advances because he is Jewish (yes, Jewish) and she comes from a Muslim background. These facts just sail by in the first episode, because Bravo has an allergy to anything complicated or too Christiane Amanpour.
The show is nothing like TLC’s “All-American Muslim,” which admirably played things straight down the objective middle and nevertheless wound up in the cross hairs of patriotic culture warriors. “Shahs of Sunset” exhibits such a secular devotion to consumerism that its subjects cannot be mistaken for anything but true-blue Americans. Their ostentatiousness is more off-putting than aspirational and, frankly, it feels deliberately exaggerated for the camera’s benefit. Their lives and words are edited in a way that would suggest they believe only in money and looks. (Perhaps they do.)
The show strictly follows the now ossified Bravo format: The gang goes to a restaurant, someone says something, there’s an argument, threats are made, someone else professes an aversion to “drama.” The cast members, though well into adulthood (geriatric by MTV standards), spend most of their time primping for the next event: a pool party; a meeting with clients; a dinner with an overbearing family member. Yet for all the manufactured activity, a terrible emptiness reveals itself in the first episode. They are all bored and boring. “There are two things I don’t like,” GG tells us about the pool party. “I don’t like ants, and I don’t like ugly people.”
The sixth cast member, a 35-year-old singer/artist named Asa Soltan Rahmati, balances “Shahs of Sunset” out somewhat with her sardonic take on how she and her friends live. Recording a pop single about Persian lifestyles called “Tehran-geles” (a play on Los Angeles), she turns out to be an unreliable critic, just as dependent on the chichi Persian scene as she claims to be outside it. “I try hard to not judge them, but it can be so hard,” she sighs.
They’ll all doubtless be goaded into judging one another further — if not on the show, then perhaps later, on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” where the network’s Cheshire-grinned host, Andy Cohen, will ply them with drinks and goad them into mutually destructive disparagement. If these “Shahs of Sunset” don’t immediately sound like people you’d want to spend any time at all with, then I affirm your instinct. Bravo, a once-interesting network that is now completely out of ideas, has merely assembled them as human receptacles for your surplus ire.
Shahs of Sunset
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Bravo.