People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, September 26, 2008
  Wake up to Sleeper Cell
As the fall TV season dawns, one of the medium’s biggest shows, both in terms of audience and “buzz,” is 24, which, as fans know, won’t actually be returning with new episodes until early next year. Now, I don’t watch 24, but I did enjoy the first two seasons on DVD before I heard that my suspicions about its unique premise not being able to sustain itself evidently came true in season three, and I haven’t been interested in the adventures of Jack Bauer since. But I am big fan of Battlestar Galactica, which is also gone until 2009, so I can sympathize with 24 fans having to wait until the new year to get their fix. If you’re a 24 devotee and in need of a fix of some taut terrorist-fighting action, allow me to recommend a little-seen show (at least by my estimation; I can count on one finger the number of people I know who’ve even heard of it) that covers similar ground but is so much better than 24 it makes the Fox hit look like Cop Rock in comparison. I’m talking about Sleeper Cell: American Terror.

The show follows a black Muslim FBI agent who goes undercover in a terrorist cell operating in Los Angeles. By making the lead character a devout Muslim, Sleeper Cell can get into the debate going on within Islam between the mainstream of decent, peace-loving people like you or I and the extremists who use violence and terrorism as tools in their perceived holy war against the West. Sleeper Cell treats Islam with a great deal of respect, going to great lengths to tear down as many stereotypes as possible – in the first season, more than half the terrorists in the cell are white, one of them a blond-haired, blue-eyed American boy who converted to radical Islam to rankle his liberal parents – and even going so far as to make many of the terrorists the viewer can relate to in some way or another. And the hook of having the hero undercover gives the show ready-made tension, as he lives in a constant state of paranoia about his cover being blown – think The Departed by way of 24.

As with any great show, the thing that drew me in to Sleeper Cell were the characters. To say that the hero, Darwyn Al-Sayeed (
Michael Ealy, who’s getting a lot of positive attention in Spike Lee’s new World War II film, Miracle at St. Anna) is conflicted is a huge understatement. He struggles to reconcile his faith with the fact that he works for the American government, but he’s driven by his disgust for what the extremists and terrorists are doing in the name of Islam. (“How can a true Muslim work for the Americans?” a terrorist demands after Darwyn takes him down. “I don’t work for the Americans,” he replies. “I am an American.”) One of the greatest accomplishments of the show is that it never feels like Darwyn’s religion is a gimmick or tool to tell the story, but rather it’s just a part of his character. He looks to his faith for support when his life gets hard – and his life gets pretty hard in 18 episodes – but it’s effective because there’s so much more to the character than just his religious beliefs.

The other cast standout is
Oded Fehr as the series’ villain, Faris al-Farik. Fehr’s a great character actor probably most recognizable for his roles in less-than-great popcorn franchises like the first two Mummy movies and the Resident Evil series, but he’s a talented actor with loads of charisma. And his charisma is exactly what makes Farik so terrifying; I feel like if I were left in a room with his snake-like terror-cell leader for an hour, there’s a decent chance he’d be able to convince me to strap on an explosive vest to strike a blow against the American infidels. And I’m an atheist.

Sleeper Cell lasted just two seasons on Showtime before the cable network decided against picking it up, but I’m happy to report that the ending of the second season does work as proper ending to the show. (As brilliant as HBO’s Deadwood is, the last episode of the final season was clearly just meant to be a season finale and not a series finale, which ultimately left me feeling unfulfilled by an otherwise incredible TV show, which is why I personally give The Wire the edge as the
best show ever, because it has a definitive and satisfying ending.) And like HBO’s stuff, Showtime means Sleeper Cell is filled with swearing and nudity. Not that a show needs that stuff to be great, but it does lend the show a gritty realism that the more comic book-y 24 will never come close to, no matter how many nukes are detonated in Los Angeles. If you’re looking for a fix until the return of Jack Bauer, check out Sleeper Cell. You won’t be disappointed.

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