Strange that only four years after we were forced to add phrases like sleeper cell to our vocabulary so much of a series about terrorists on American soil can feel cliché. Showtime’s nine-part Sleeper Cell, about a small group of Muslim extremists and the undercover agent who’s infiltrated their band, has every feature that every movie involving post-9/11 terrorism seems to deem essential. The optimistically named agent Darwyn al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) is himself a Muslim, leading to the obligatory declaration that the extremists are distorting the word of the Koran. ”These guys have nothing to do with my faith,” he proclaims. At various points, the terrorists decry football and American arrogance, a trait highlighted in one scene in which some frat types harass a Sikh, mistaking him for an Arab, and allowing Mr. Survival of the Fittest to explain to them — and us — the differences between the cultures. These are all certainly important points, but Sleeper makes them artlessly — yet with a confounding confidence that it’s teaching us something new. In truth, ”these guys have nothing to do with my faith” is becoming to terrorist yarns what ”his violence is…escalating” is to serial-killer flicks. We know it, we’ve heard it, find a slicker approach.
All of Sleeper Cell’s didacticism would be forgiven if it were more entertaining. Instead it has a Donnie Brasco in-too-deep plotline with none of the suffocating, damning intertwinements. Darwyn puts a torture victim out of his misery with a bullet, but the killing has little ripple in his outside life. He falls for a nice single mother (Melissa Sagemiller) who can’t know his identity, but four episodes in, the only risk seems to be that plotting mass murder can make a guy late for dinner. He has no emotional attachments to his faux compatriots, who may be the least fiery would-be killers around. Leader Farik (Oded Fehr) is a calm, dogmatic, unconflicted believer, and crises of conscience are few among his bland crew. Unlike HBO’s much more gripping The Wire, the bad guys here are neither layered nor particularly likable. Viewers won’t find themselves in that wonderfully queasy situation of actually being concerned about a murderer. And while the terrorists are supposed to be unnerving because they live among us, we rarely see them at home or play. Farik coaches a Jewish kids’ baseball team as part of his elaborate cover story. This leads to lines like ”Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my aspiring Zionist ballplayers.” But it’s unclear if this is ironic or earnest since we know so little about his character. (What is ironic is that Israeli-born Fehr is playing a Muslim who passes for Jewish.) Promising situation, disappointing returns, like so much of this loosely paced series.
Sleeper does pick up in its final episodes, when surprising complications arise with both Darwyn’s girlfriend and the mother (Ally Walker) of a young, white-bread cell member (Blake Shields), whose privacy — and sword-wielding videotape threats — she disrupts. But it takes real patience to get to these rewards; aspiring terrorism should never invite yawns.