Critics' picks: New DVDs

`Sleeper Cell' reflected viewers' post-Sept. 11 jitters

March 18, 2007|By David Zurawik

SLEEPER CELL: AMERICAN TERROR -- Paramount Home Entertainment / $26.99

Sleeper Cell, the saga of an African-American Muslim FBI agent who penetrates a terrorist cell in the United States, was never a great TV drama.

Despite an Emmy-nominated lead performance by University of Maryland graduate Michael Ealy as federal agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed, overall, there were too many one-dimensional characters. Furthermore, writer-producers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris were often heavy-handed in the repetition of their core message that Muslims come in all shapes and sizes.

But the series, which was canceled last month by Showtime after two seasons, remains one of the most culturally fascinating prime-time dramas of the decade in the ways that it otherwise attempted to reflect and to address the collective jitters of a post-Sept. 11 nation.

Set in Los Angeles, the premise is the same as that of the feature film Donnie Brasco - only instead of an East Coast organized-crime family, it is a terrorist cell in Los Angeles that the undercover FBI agent tries to penetrate and crack.

Sayeed is a fantasy figure created by Hollywood writers in response to our anxiety about al-Qaida attacks. Think Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the federal agent who saves America again and again from terrorist attacks in the Fox thriller 24. But, in this case, the hero is an African-American who is a devoted believer in Islam.

One can't help admire the premise and performance by Ealy. If only the storytelling had been more compelling.

Special features

Commentary on various episodes from Voris, Reiff and writer Alex Woo.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

MAUDE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON --Sony Home Entertainment / $29.95

The CBS sitcom made its debut in 1972 as a spinoff of producer Norman Lear's landmark All in the Family series, and immediately became one of the most talked about productions in all of American popular culture.

Beatrice Arthur was marvelously outrageous as Maude Findlay, an upper-middle-class, East Coast liberal who was never shy about speaking her mind.

The series spoke to and tapped the psychic energy of the burgeoning women's movement, and opened the door to a new and enlightened wave of prime-time, female images.

The episode titled "Maude's Dilemma" features the 47-year-old heroine's pregnancy and her decision to have an abortion. The topic had never even been mentioned in a network sitcom before Maude.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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