Everything we know about sleeper cells is wrong, if we’re to believe this 10-part miniseries. There’s nothing inert or sleepy about the fictional band of Muslim would-be terrorists in Sleeper Cell. Although they’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, these guys are as busy as mafiosi on crystal meth,
seeking out mayhem-oriented errands every week—basic stuff like killing sluts and pacifist clerics, or tracking down explosives and anthrax.
Like the terrific Showtime series Weeds, this new drama plays with the idea of something dangerous hidden behind the manicured hedges of suburbia. But there’s a huge difference between Weeds‘ drug-dealing soccer mom and Sleeper Cell‘s mujahideen masquerading as average joes. Sure, they meet at picnics and the local bowling alley, but none of these characters are integrated into their L.A. community. They resemble a mismatched Mod Squad, each a cliché in his own right. There’s Christian, a French ex-skinhead now funneling all of his excess testosterone toward the Muslim cause; Tommy, an all-American lunkhead rebelling against liberal, intellectual parents; and Ilijia, a sensitive Bosnian refugee seeking revenge for the slaughter of his people. “I love America, man, but you never came,” he says mournfully. “Not for us.”
The only character ornamented with any kind of intimate detail or backstory is dreamy-eyed African American Darwyn (Michael Ealy). But then, he’s not really a terrorist, he just plays one on TV: An undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated the cell, Darwyn represents the show’s “good Muslim.” He takes every opportunity to remind his superiors that these bad guys “have nothing to do with my faith” and regularly lectures clueless Americans who denigrate Islam. In one early episode, Darwyn pummels some white thugs on the subway who mistake an old Sikh guy for an Arab. Sikhs and Muslims “are like Crips and Bloods,” he shouts. “They hate each other!”
Darwyn finds his perfect ideological foil in Farik, the cell’s mysterious leader. Farik lives a lie too, passing as a pillar of the Jewish community. When he’s not working at a high-powered security consultancy (where he has easy access to plans for potential targets like the Hollywood Bowl) or planning mass destruction, he coaches a Semitic Little League team called the Sinai Maccabees. In one of the series’ few jokey moments, Farik (Oded Fehr) tells Darwyn, “You go your way. I go Yahweh.”
Over There, the recently canceled drama about the Iraq war, proved that it’s not so easy to harness the horror of contemporary news. Most viewers already feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the ongoing threat of terrorism, often to the point of denial. So why voluntarily submit to a TV drama on the subject unless it’s extremely insightful (like the 2003 Frontline documentary “Chasing the Sleeper Cell,” which can be watched online at pbs.org/frontline/shows/sleeper) or else transportingly entertaining? Series like 24, Alias, and E-Ring riff on current events but sap them of their specificity, translating global chaos into the kind of adrenaline thrillfest that makes us forget real troubles.
Sleeper Cell moves way too slowly to get anyone’s pulse racing—except maybe the Arab American community, which will almost certainly protest, despite the writers’ awkward attempts to give equal screen time to “good” and “bad” Muslims. And unlike your average spy series, the show boasts little in the way of ultramodern surveillance technology or super-sleuth weaponry. Alias‘s Sydney Bristow has a crack team of cryptographers to decode data and geniuses customizing cool covert gadgets for her; Darwyn’s law enforcement colleagues, on the other hand, are mostly bungling, ignorant functionaries who can’t even track down basic information on Farik’s identity. Early in the series, Darwyn shouts at his FBI liaison, Special Agent Ray Fuller (James LeGros), for the lack of support: “You left me out there, man, in the middle of nowhere! In a van full of sociopaths with not even a highway patrol rookie to back me up!” Fuller has no TV-ready response, muttering only, “You’re right, OK? For that I apologize.” Even our dashing hero Darwyn loses focus. Knowing he carries the fate of the world on his hunky shoulders, he nevertheless plunges into a far-fetched romantic subplot involving an ivory-skinned single mom. It’s the kind of dangerous liaison that could jeopardize the mission and thus put all of America in peril.
Not only does Sleeper Cell fan free-form paranoia about Arabs, foreigners, and loners (hey, maybe that next-door neighbor with the funny accent is a terrorist after all!), but it plants the idea that the people meant to be protecting us from amorphous terror might be as inept as Inspector Clouseau—or even former FEMA chief Michael Brown. What could be scarier than that?