There Goes the Neighborhood

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Courtesy of Showtime

“Paradise,” Sleeper Cell informs us early on, “is in the shadow of the swords.” The radical Islamic sleepers in this mini-series—a tour guide, a bowling-alley clerk, a grocery-store cashier, a high-school science teacher, and a security consultant who coaches a baseball team while pretending to be Jewish—prefer to think of themselves as holy warriors rather than terrorists. As they fester and plot in small rooms with white-noise generators to discourage electronic eavesdropping, as they steal trucks, stone stool pigeons, rehearse shopping-mall atrocities, smuggle anthrax from Canada, try out poison gas on dogs, and videotape infomercials to be aired after they’ve gone up in glorious smoke, they also explain their quarrel with the West and modernity, and how it is that they came to decadent Los Angeles from traumatic Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, France, and/or Berkeley, California.

Executive producers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris have larger ambitions than merely to thrill us. To be sure, there is enough action to start a riot and enough narrative to stuff a Ludlum novel, from dog races, baseball games, and text messaging to strip bars, lap dancing, and love gone wrong. (Premium cable means wardrobe malfunctions.) But Sleeper Cell actually troubles to try to explain why people in other parts of the world might hate us enough to want to do us terrible harm. In such an endeavor, Reiff and Voris line up less with the hack screenwriters for whom “Arab terrorist” is the latest lazy stereotype than with such serious novelists as Doris Lessing, Heinrich Böll, Nadine Gordimer, Don DeLillo, and, most recently, Salman Rushdie in Shalimar the Clown, all of whom are genuinely curious about the extremist for whom everybody is a means instead of an end, even himself.

Alas, after ten fraught hours during which undercover FBI agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) tries to figure out the cell’s ultimate target before the cell members figure out that Darwyn secretly subscribes to a kinder, gentler Koran than their own, we seem to get to know the enemy far too well, past empathetic understanding to listless impatience. Over and over again, they gnaw the same old bones and mutter the same old anathemas. Moreover, odd edges have been added that don’t so much round out character as lop off credibility. Farik, for instance, played by Oded Fehr (best known for helping Brendan Fraser save Egypt from The Mummy), is the brains of the L.A. operation. There is no reason not to believe that he is married to a Palestinian refugee who lives in London, or that he is in clandestine communication with similar cells in New York and Washington, D.C., or that he is capable of murdering a Mexican mobster who might get in the way of his laundered money. But why should he bother to wear a yarmulke and hang around synagogues? Wouldn’t this risk rather than advance his cause? And shouldn’t child prostitution in Tijuana offend him as much as it offends Darwyn?

Then there’s blond-haired, quick-tempered, all-American Tommy. As played by Blake Shields, he looks less Middle Eastern than Big 12 football frat boy. Okay, it could happen. But must his conversion to bloodthirsty sectarianism be explained away as a Freudian rebellion against his equally blonde, radical-chic Berkeley-professor mother? (And never mind that Tommy’s mother is played by Ally Walker, the former star of Profiler who ought to be working for the Justice Department instead of against it.) This is beyond unlikely, on the threshold of perverse. And though I am willing to believe that another of the terrorists, Christian (Alex Nesic), is trying too hard to prove himself to a Moroccan wife who doesn’t love him, I’m not willing to buy his being French. French-baiting is the first refuge of American parochialism.

Sleeper Cell tries laudably to entertain us and to complicate us simultaneously. But we also experience the Stockholm syndrome in reverse. The more time we spend with these people, the less we care about them.

Don’t confuse Sleeper Cell with The Cell, a recently proposed and well-publicized sitcom about terrorists who plan to attack Chicago, then wind up falling in love with American excess. The script, created by two veteran Hollywood writers, got attention, but no one was brave—or crazy—enough to buy the show. (Sacha Baron Cohen of Da Ali G Show was interested, but passed.) The idea of terrorism with a laugh track might seem improbable, but not everyone in TV thought it was nuts. As Warren Littlefield, ex-head of NBC, told the Times, “I’m sure there would be a lot of people that said you can’t do this, but that’s what they told me about Will & Grace.”

Sleeper Cell
Sun.–Wed., 10 p.m.
Premieres December 4.

There Goes the Neighborhood