Daring, topical `Sleeper Cell' might be too painful to watch

Television Review


American television's first Muslim hero arrives tonight on Showtime in a 10-part series that takes dead aim at post-9/11 jitters. The question, however, is do we really want our worst national nightmares played out as prime-time entertainment?

Set in Los Angeles and shot-through with acts of intense violence, Sleeper Cell tracks an al-Qaida cell and the FBI agent who penetrates it. Think Donnie Brasco meets The Sopranos - only instead of a mob family, it's a terrorist group that the FBI is trying to crack. Like the members of Tony Soprano's crew, the terrorists live seemingly mundane suburban lives right down to weekend picnics in the park with spouses and kids. Except when they are meeting in a bowling alley to plot biological warfare on a shopping mall.

The series begins as undercover agent Darwyn Al-Hakim (Michael Ealy), is released from prison after serving time for a crime fabricated by the FBI. The pace is slow as the producers go out of their way to establish the leading character as a devout Muslim: Darwyn praying, reading and quoting the Koran.

As daring as creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris are in taking on such controversial subject matter in the first place, they can be maddeningly heavy-handed in underscoring the message that Muslims come in all shapes and sizes. Important as the message is, the series suffers dramatically when it is reiterated again and again.

Hero has weaknesses

The pace quickens once Darwyn meets the leader of the cell, Faris Al-Farik, played with a winning mixture of charm and menace by Oded Fehr. Farik, who runs a security firm and is passing as a Jew, coaches a Temple Little League team called the Sinai Maccabees.

His zealotry can be obvious: "Soon, I and my fellow mujahedeen will have struck a successful blow against American arrogance - delivered to the heart of America on its home front." But he can also be punningly playful as he tells Darwyn, "You go your way, and I'll go Yahweh."

Unfortunately, he and Darwyn are the only characters of more than one dimension - and some of the contradictions within Darwyn's personality are sure to stir controversy. One aspect of the character that already has triggered debate involves the devout Muslim having sex outside of marriage. Darwyn meets a single mother (Melissa Sagemiller) at the cell members' family picnic, and quickly winds up in bed with her - headed for a continuing relationship.

The producers say they are trying to create a Muslim hero with whom a mainstream audience can identify - and for that to happen, the character must have flaws. But Darwyn's sexual activity is also clearly a case of Showtime trying to take full advantage of Ealy's hunky persona, including his soulful blue eyes and (in real life) romantic relationship with actress Halle Berry - topics of seemingly endless discussion on the Internet.

Very graphic violence

Tonight's episode also closes on an act of violence graphic even by the standards of The Sopranos, which set a pretty high bar with the beheading of Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano). Darwyn's involvement in the violence is morally complicated, but there is no denying the blood on his hands.

Of course, what's an American hero without some blood on his hands? As the first Muslim hero - and a blue-eyed African-American one at that - Darwyn Al-Hakim is one of the most culturally intriguing characters of the new season. Like Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the terrorist-fighting federal agent of the Fox series 24, Darwyn is a Hollywood-drawn figure of rescue from our fear of al-Qaida attacks - only this time, a Muslim is one of the good guys.

If one is looking for a TV drama that earnestly tries to reflect and speak to our lives and times, it would be hard to do better than Sleeper Cell. But then, much the same was said about Over There, a gutty FX drama from producer Steven Bochco about American GIs fighting in Iraq. Though widely-praised for being the first prime-time series to dramatize a war in progress, it was canceled earlier this month after failing to find a mainstream audience.


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