30 December 2006 | liquidcelluloid-1
One of TV's best dramas, both a riveting Hollywood thrill-ride and a rare nuanced look at modern terrorism
Network: Showtime; Genre: Drama, Action, Crime; Content Rating: TV-MA (graphic language, strong violence, nudity, simulated sex and sequences of terror); Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 - 4);
Seasons Reviewed: 2 seasons
Farik (Oded Fehr) recruits African-American Muslim Darwyn Al-Said (Michael Ealy) to be part of a brotherhood of jihadists who have fully integrated into American society out in the open and behind closed doors are planning an attack on Los Angeles. Little does Farik know that Darwyn also has a secret identity, an undercover FBI agent trying to bring down Farik's terrorist sleeper cell.
The idea that terrorist sleeper cells are lying wait in America posing as our friend and neighbors is one too baffling and frightening for most people to comprehend. Every once in a while "24" will embrace the post-9/11 view of terrorism, but nothing on TV touches the subject like "Sleeper Cell". Hopefully this will change, but to date, nothing matches the intelligence, thoughtfulness and nuanced realism of "Sleeper Cell". Created by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, the show digs deep into every angle of every highly debatable issue surrounding Islam, terrorism, and American policy in a post 9/11 world. "Cell" takes all this and turns it into an immensely entertaining cinema-quality thrill-ride. You most likely won't end up more educated about terrorism or global politics and many may object to such a cavalier Hollywood approach to such a serious subject, but for what it is worth, the balance is flawless.
Inside the action, "Sleeper Cell" depicts the war on terror as between Muslim vs. Muslim with peaceful Darwyn coming up against a group of zealots who have perverted his religion to justify murder and mayhem. While reading a description like that you might as well be listening to a presidential rallying speech, but the way "Cell" brings it to life is eye-opening. Armed with a versed knowledge of the religion's history and quoted passages from the Qu'ran, the show has written every angle - the pro-force right, the conspiracy theorist left and the terrorist dogma - with the same versatile rationality of a person who believes each of these views. Often shows get praised for espousing an opinion. My problem with many of them (such as Dick Wolf and David E. Kelley's stuff) is that every character espouses a single opinion, and the other side is broadly depicted or only there to be ridiculed, when the real world is more like Sleeper Cell, honest cases are made for each side - even the villain's without sympathizing with terrorism.
The performances are spot on. Fehr is the picture of frightening charm as a leader should be. Elay says pages of dialog across his face, tortured by what he has to do to maintain his cover, particularly when those around him start to die. With all the talk about the culture clash between the west and the middle east, let's not underplay how riveting, exciting and purely entertaining in a rare way this show is. We watch with twisted fascination as the terrorists put their plans together and then cheer for them to be ripped apart at the same time. Season 1's strength is the way it takes us through this process - from the financing to the training to the choice of date and target. All the while actually making us want to see how far the cell will get with their plans.
Having sewed up the story pretty tight at the end of season 1 (or the first mini-series, I'm not sure), Season 2 (or the sequel mini-series, "American Terror") does a bit of a contortion to bring them back. Like any good sequel, it succeeds by building off the characters. The show occasionally wanders off into the personal lives of cell members and looses focus, but when it ultimately gets down to business, the entire season smartly builds toward a grand wild-west-style confrontation between Farek and Darwyn, the result is as intense and satisfying as anything you'll see outside of a Jack Bauer interrogation.
"Sleeper Cell" is one of the most criminally under-watched and underrated shows on TV and a possible headliner for Showtime. I definitely want more, but the self-contained first season and its live-wire sequel are enough to keep me content for now. TV is not a medium where a nuanced and intelligent piece of pulp entertainment is often rewarded. Don't pass up this chance. One of the very best dramas on TV.
* * * * / 4