For years, most Iranians have understood the United States through expat tales, condemnatory sermons about the Great Satan -- and the Spider-Man films. This year, however, they have a new show called Satellite that offers an unfamiliar and bizarrely twisted portrayal of an America so tawdry that charlatans hawk their own mothers for $20 and sex-chat-room perverts aspire to political leadership of Iran. Set in an imagined Los Angeles among the city's large Iranian diaspora, Satellite, an hourlong show that's available on YouTube as well as on DVD in corner stores everywhere in Iran, offers a burlesque parody that is not merely shocking but also depressingly revealing about the state of establishment Iran's once-proud attitude toward its expat community. Iran has long had its highly publicized version of the Ugly American; now, it seems, the country is embracing something else entirely: the Ugly Iranian-American.
The show, made by Mehran Modiri, the king of mainstream Iranian television, opens in the living room of an urban, middle-class Iranian family gathered in front of its newly installed illegal satellite dish. "From five channels to 900!" marvels the father, as the unnamed family crowds eagerly onto the couch for a first glimpse at the outside world. Soon, however, the parents are eyeing one another in dismay: The 900 channels are beaming a polluted America into their living room. The rest of the show consists of screen-within-a-screen skits as the family flips from channel to channel, increasingly appalled at the corruption they witness, acting as a sort of living-room Greek chorus as the camera pans between the frivolous U.S. shows on television and the staid, hypocritical family (the pious-looking father asks the dish installer for access to sex channels) watching and reacting in occasional titillation but, mostly, horror.
Most of the clips focus on ordinary Iranian-Americans, portraying them as drug-addicted, promiscuous, amoral loons. The show is busy with flamboyant gay men who cause the family much alarm as they wiggle their hips and flap their hands on-screen, speaking in screeching tones. "Is that a man or a woman?" the father asks his wife, frantically trying to change the channel. Another clip shows a New Age pop psychologist counseling a new mother to hurl her infant into the air to ensure its well-being and a man to squeeze his terminally ill father to death: "Keep squeezing, squeeze, and chant for the illness to leave your father's body." When the caller says his father has died, the quack goes back to selling his "happiness DVDs," a swipe at the faddishness of therapy within the Iranian-American diaspora (Persian-language therapy cruises not being uncommon in places like Los Angeles).
These cartoonish Iranian-Americans aren't simply crass, foolish, and wicked -- they're also shown to be deracinated hypocrites, despite their oft-professed nostalgia. In one skit, a female singer recounts her homesickness to an interviewer in Los Angeles. "My Iranian identity is very important to me. I missed home so much that I boarded a plane and counted the seconds till my return," she says. "So you flew to Tehran?" the interviewer asks. "No, I flew here!"
And then there are the skits that accuse Iranian-Americans of fomenting revolution. Modiri himself appears as a fake talk-show host in a parody of the armchair revolutionaries and Persian nationalists who exhort Iranians inside the country to rise up, from their comfortable perches in Beverly Hills and Westwood. Seated in a wood-paneled library beside Iran's pre-1979 flag, Modiri bellows at Iranians for their weak-kneed response to dictatorship. "Idiots! Traitors! I'm not after power or wealth; I don't want to be president or head of parliament," he assures. "At the very most I would run state broadcasting."
Another skit features Mr. Tondar, an aged, mustachioed contender who raspingly refers to himself as "potential prime minister of Iran." An outraged caller from Iran rebukes him: "You've sat across the world for 30 years going to bars and cabarets, gambling, smoking your opium, eating your kebab. Now you want to make political plans for us?" In response, Tondar says: "Get your facts straight. I haven't touched red meat in 40 years." The family exchanges sidelong glances, appalled.
Toward the show's latter half, as a Brüno-esque beautician advises a caller to beat his new wife, the family in the living room is seen vomiting into trash bins; eventually their sofa sits empty. The verdict is clear: Five channels are better than 900, and America is no place for good, upstanding Iranians.