Rob Patterson

'Sleeper Cell' a Wake-Up Call

In a recent installment of his Time magazine column, Joe Klein expounds on "When Hollywood Gets Terrorism Right." I won't argue with his examples of both wrong (the TV show 24 and film (Syriana) and right (Munich and Paradise Now). But Klein missed a big one that gets it right indeed with chilling results: Showtime's 10-episode series Sleeper Cell.

And speaking of missing media offerings, I wouldn't have caught Sleeper Cell if not for Showtime's On Demand service, one of the genuine benefits offered by some cable channels. In a similar digression, I recently upgraded to a digital video recorder on my cable service. As much as my Luddite leanings decry the sheer onslaught of media offerings in our modern age, making it nigh on impossible for the average person much less an entertainment journalist to keep up with all of the significant offerings -- note that I did not say worthy -- the ability to easily time-shift television with On Demand, DVRs and TiVo is for me, right now, one of the blessings within the very mixed bag of our modern age.

But I digress, even if terrorism is likely the biggest curse (of many) from that very mixed bag of modernity. Not that it hasn't been around for centuries; but 9/11 gave a very big hint of just how even not so recent modern amenities like jet airliners and skyscrapers haves upped the ante.

For my money, Sleeper Cell gets terrorism all too right on one big point -- it spooked the spit out of me.

Yes, the series has its Hollywood qualities. The cast is an awfully good looking bunch, even the baddies. It's set in Los Angeles, where of course we all know the most beautiful people live, right? But seriously, it's part and parcel of successful TV to have attractive characters. And though that may disconnect drama from reality, if the drama works, the nice face factor doesn't necessarily undercut its validity.

This is drama, after all. And over Sleeper Cell's 10 segments, the series makes quite plausible the notion of an actual cell so embedded into average American life as to be virtually invisible. Being an internationalist, I like the fact that even living in Central Texas I do know Arabs, albeit as clerks in a convenience store I shop at. (And being a populist, I actually do get to know clerks.) But sadly, since 9/11, even the most non- if not anti-xenophobic American can't help but wonder on occasion if that guy selling me my cigarettes is …

The real merit to Sleeper Cell is making its main character and hero a Muslim, albeit a black American one. One of the most powerful undercurrents in the series is the dialectic between the notions of Islam as a religion of peace or a faith driven by jihad. Sleeper Cell, even for its paranoia inducing power, gives Islam respect and understanding -- an essential first element in realistically dealing with Islamic terror.

As Darwin Al-Sayeed, the FBI agent who infiltrates the cell, actor Michael Ealy delivers a strong performance. But the live wire that gives Sleeper Cell its scariest power is Israeli-born actor Oded Fehr playing Faris Al-Farik, the leader of the cell. The combination of a sabra playing an Arab terrorist whose cover is as an observant Jew is resonant by its nature, especially since the Arab-Israeli flashpoint in the Middle East conflict is one between two Semitic peoples -- cousins if not even brothers in the human family. And Fehr invests Al-Farik with the compelling charisma of a natural leader and terrifying commitment of a true believer.

The show's cell is almost too much of a picture perfect survey of potential terrorists: the disaffected American, the radicalized European, the vengeful Bosnian. But it also shows just how much the conflict between faiths and cultures has become threaded into modern existence.

Sleeper Cell also builds in the moral ambiguities that come with a clash of cultures and in the campaign to protect our nation from terrorism (note that I am loath to say "war on terror," because the very notion gets fighting terrorism all wrong). Al-Sayeed is faced with the dilemma of committing criminal acts, including murder, to protect his cover. And a surveillance issue in the series echoes the current issue of domestic spying.

Yet another ambiguity is how Sleeper Cell shows the terrorists are tempted, wooed by and enjoy the sometimes hedonistic pleasures of modern American life. After all, the tension between radical fundamentalists in both Islam as well as American Christianity and how we actually live in this society is also a clash between traditionalism and modern (read consumer) culture.

Ultimately, the fine characterizations, sharp plotting, rich subtexts and even the Hollywood gloss all add up to make Sleeper Cell compelling television. And more than a little bit terrifying, especially since, by all indications, the notion of Homeland Security as it's been incompetently pursued by the Bush administration makes me wonder if their efforts can even come close to the ultimate effectiveness of the government agencies in Sleeper Cell. It's TV, after all, so I'm not really giving anything away to say that all's well that ends well. But in real life, I have serious doubts about our nation's ability to avert the next domestic terrorist incident(s) as well as the dangerous effects of such incidents on a national consciousness that's already been dangerously confused by 9/11 and its aftermath.

Thanks to modern technology, Sleeper Cell can still be caught on cable and will doubtlessly bow on DVD in the near future, and is well worth watching. It entertains, raises vital questions and sends a chill of fear down the spine. In other words, it's drama that gets you thinking, and raises entertainment beyond the vapid escapism that, alas, is a factor in what's wrong with America in these dangerous times we live in.


Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email