'Sleeper Cell': Terrorism Close to Home

Television critic Andrew Wallenstein reviews the new Showtime mini-series Sleeper Cell, which premieres Sunday night. The series depicts a terrorist cell that's preparing to strike in the United States from the inside, and efforts by an undercover agent to stop the terrorists before it's too late.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")

Unidentified Woman: Royal Canadian Mounted Police have just released this footage of the anthrax seized at the Canadian port of Vancouver.

CHADWICK: Oh, they didn't get any anthrax. That's just TV. But it's pretty good TV. This is from the new Showtime miniseries that's starting on Sunday. It's called "Sleeper Cell." It's about terrorism. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN:

"Sleeper Cell" may be one of the best miniseries TV has seen in a long time. Why Showtime sees fit to end it after 10 one-hour episodes when it could go on for years as a successful show is incomprehensible. The miniseries depicts a group of would-be Islamic terrorists operating in the shadows of modern-day Los Angeles. Their leader, Farik, thinks he's found a new recruit in Darwyn Al-Joachim, an ex-con fresh out of prison. Little does he know Darwyn is an undercover FBI agent intent on bringing down Farik's cell. Darwyn is an apt name for the agent because his assignment plays like an extreme example of survival of the fittest. He must keep his identity secret from the hypervigilant Farik, who isn't above murdering one of his own at the slightest whiff of disloyalty. And as if Darwyn's life wasn't complicated enough, he gets romantically involved with a woman who has no idea about his undercover identity. It's a situation his FBI liaison, played by James LeGros, warns him will lead to trouble.

(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")

Mr. JAMES LEGROS: Darwyn, let me ask you a question. What do you expect to come of all this?

Mr. MICHAEL EALY: (As Darwyn Al-Joachim) It's none of your business.

Mr. LEGROS: Are you kidding me? Hey, man. Everything you do is my business. Have you thought about what Farik might do with this information? You might be putting this woman and her son in serious danger. You know I'm right.

WALLENSTEIN: As the beleaguered Darwyn, Michael Ealy brings a quiet intensity to the role that suits such a multidimensional character. Sure, "Sleeper Cell" cleverly borrows its format from the deep-cover story line familiar from Mafia movies like "Donnie Brasco," but Darwyn's not your average secret agent man. His identity is complicated by the fact that he is a Muslim, but one philosophically opposed to the militant fringe. It's a great way of illustrating the internal tensions dividing Muslims in today's world. But Ealy is overshadowed by Oded Fehr as the diabolical Farik. What's most disturbing is that he doesn't play Farik as a wild-eyed zealot. He has the crisp demeanor of a corporate executive whose business just happens to be death. But Farik's passion for his cause is undeniable.

(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")

Mr. ODED FEHR: (As Farik) I'm not at war with the American military, we're at war with America, period. And we're going to win that war by convincing enough Americans through the spread of fear, insecurity and terror to change their ways. And the best way to teach that lesson is by attacking them where they live, work and play.

WALLENSTEIN: The fascinating characters don't end with Darwyn and Farik. The entire cell is populated by interesting figures, each being pulled in opposite directions by the demands of their faith and the lures of secular society. Most compelling of the supporting players is Blake Shields as the American-born Tommy, the product of parents who are Berkeley liberals. The echoes to the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, are not subtle. And that's just as it should be. Every frame of "Sleeper Cell" screams at the viewer `This could happen again.' Executive producers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris jampacked 10 hours with realistic detail. The result is a chilling reminder of what we can only hope will remain in the realm of fiction.

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at The Hollywood Reporter.

I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY continues. Stay with us.

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