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'Sleeper Cell' Draws Fire for Soft Take on Terrorists

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'Sleeper Cell' Draws Fire for Soft Take on Terrorists

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'Sleeper Cell' Draws Fire for Soft Take on Terrorists

'Sleeper Cell' Draws Fire for Soft Take on Terrorists

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The second season of the Showtime series Sleeper Cell"premieres next Sunday. The principle character is a black Muslim FBI agent determined to bring down a terrorist cell in Los Angeles. The show has drawn a range of critics who say it is too sympathetic to the terrorist motivations of Sleeper Cell's characters.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Next week, Showtime will launch the second season of its miniseries, "Sleeper Cell," which was nominated for an Emmy last year. The program follows a ring of Islamist terrorists living in Los Angeles and the undercover FBI agent who is trying to take them down.

Many critics say the show breaks new ground in its portrayal of Islam and terrorism, but "Sleeper Cell" has its detractors as well.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: As in many American thrillers, the hero of "Sleeper Cell" is an FBI agent. But he's not like any agent we've ever seen before on TV.

(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")

Mr. MICHAEL EALY (Actor): (As Agent Darwin al-Said) You know what Islam means in Arabic? (Speaking Arabic) Surrender to God's will. Peace. These guys have nothing to do with my faith.

SYDELL: Undercover Agent Darwin al-Said, played by Michael Ealy, is a Muslim motivated to bring down the terrorists by his conviction that they are distorting his faith.

Mr. EALY: That's the one thing that I think is very subversive about this show that we set out to sort of do, is to say, We want Americans to root for a Muslim.

SYDELL: Cyrus Voris is one of "Sleeper Cell"'s executive producers, creators, and a writer on the show. Voris is not a Muslim and he admits that after the attacks of 9/11, he was feeling rather anti-Muslim. But he had a revelation at a Hollywood fundraiser soon after.

Mr. CYRUS VORIS (Executive Producer, "Sleeper Cell"): I remember at this telethon Will Smith bringing Muhammad Ali out on stage, and Muhammad Ali, who's a great hero of mine and great American hero, come out and saying, You know, I'm a Muslim and this is not Islam. And it was a really profound moment for me, and I just started thinking, like, Okay, well, this is a very complex issue.

SYDELL: Voris said his writing partner, Ethan Reiff, wanted to examine those complexities. Reiff says the two men, who have been writing together for film and television since 1987, decided to explore their ideas in the way they know best.

Mr. ETHAN REIFF (Writer): We had no interest in making a History Channel special about Islamic extremism or the FBI's counterterrorist tactics or something like that. Which is great. I mean, I might enjoy watching something like that, but that's not what we do. So we had to turn it into a compelling story with interesting characters at the center.

(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")

Mr. HENRY LUBATTI(ph) (Actor): (As Character) I dedicate my sacrifice to Allah and the freedom of Muslims everywhere from their oppressors, and to the memory of my family whose unjust deaths will finally be balanced on the scales...

SYDELL: In a chilling suicide tape from the end of the first season, one of the terrorists, the Bosnian Ilia(ph), played by Henry Lubatti, explains why he dislikes America. His family was slaughtered by Christian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, and he faults the U.S. for not taking action.

Because "Sleeper Cell" explores the personal motivations of the terrorists, it has been criticized by some for being sympathetic to their cause. Not at all, says co-producer Reiff.

Mr. REIFF: Acknowledging that he's a human being, that doesn't mean that I want to be his friend. That doesn't mean I wouldn't put him up against a wall and execute him if I had control over him. It just means I want to see him the way he really is, not as a cardboard cutout or, you know, one dimensional guy with a big beard and a scimitar, you know, and a turban screaming at the top of his lungs.

SYDELL: Indeed, many critics have lauded "Sleeper Cell" because of its three-dimensional portraits of terrorists. James Poniewozik is a television critic for Time magazine.

Mr. JAMES PONIEWOZIK (TV Critic): You have Bosnians. You have Saudi Arabians. You have Indonesians. All with their own sort of agendas and internecine conflict that the show also explores and that usually get glossed over in shows like, say, "24," for all it's entertainingness kind of tends to melt terrorists into kind of an indistinguishable mass.

SYDELL: There's even a blonde-haired, blue-eyed disaffected native Californian in the cell. Poniewozik thinks the show also takes a leap forward in its portrayal of Islam. There are theological discussions interwoven in the plot. For example, a moderate Muslim cleric, played by Mark Casabani(ph), gets into a debate with one of the terrorists, Christian, played by Alexander Nyesic(ph).

(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")

Mr. ALEXANDER NYESIC (Actor): (As Christian) If the unbelievers kill our civilians, we have the right to do the same.

Mr. MARK CASABANI (Actor): (As Cleric) Allah permits retaliation only against the guilty party. Not against innocents. (Unintelligible) 53, verse 38 says, No soul shall bear the burden of another.

SYDELL: But this fuller portrayal of Islam hasn't been enough to quell some critics, who say the program still perpetuates stereotypes. In season one, the terrorists hide behind a mask of normalcy. One is a teacher by day, another an Arab pretending to be a Jew who coaches community sports.

Sobia Khan(ph) with the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, says she wants to see a show with a Muslim doctor or comedian.

Ms. SOBIA KHAN (CAIR): There's a new study out there that four in 10 people don't want a Muslim neighbor. I don't blame them. If they saw "Sleeper Cell," heck, I wouldn't want a Muslim neighbor next to me. So these images do affect reality.

SYDELL: Not all Muslims agree. Especially the ones working on the show. Pakistani-born co-producer and writer Camran Pasha(ph) thinks the program is helping to create a more nuanced view. He says for himself and the other Muslims working on the show, it may be the first time their perspective has really been valued in Hollywood.

Ms. KAMRAN PASHA (Co-Producer/Writer, "Sleeper Cell"): Every single episode of the series allows me to naturally insert what I view as true Islam, the religion of 1.5 billion people that's an ancient and prosperous religion that keeps growing. You know, it's not the tradition of violence, hatred and self destruction that the terrorists represent.

SYDELL: Pasha thinks that if a show with a Muslim hero is successful, then it's likely to open the door to other Muslim characters. Although the first season of the program did well for Showtime, reviews of "Sleeper Cell" were mixed. Some critics loved its combination of action and its more subtle portrayals of terrorists. But Time magazine's Poniewozik feels it still has a kind of stiffness that may come from trying to fit in too many perspectives.

Mr. PONIEWOZIK: I too often get the feeling that a character is not really a person but just sort of a plot device, somebody who's in there to represent the role of this is the American Muslim, this guy is the moderate Arab sheikh.

SYDELL: But much of what is being seen in "Sleeper Cell" is coming directly from the news, say its producers. Increasingly, terrorists are finding recruits who are not Arab. In the second season, they use the debate on torture and foreign extradition as a plot device. One of the terrorists has been captured but won't talk to Americans. So authorities want to deport him.

(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) The (bleep) is like the Rock of Gibraltar, immovable. So what's your plan? Keep him incarcerated for 40 years? It's time to throw the rule book away and get him to talk.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) So you're sending him to Cyrus to be tortured.

Unidentified Woman #1: Your word, not mine.

SYDELL: In all of these controversial plot twists, arguments for and against end up in the script, says writer/producer Pasha.

Mr. PASHA: In that writer's room, everyone's perspective is allowed in order for the characters to say and do what they do. And then those debates and those angry arguments end up in the mouths of all the characters.

SYDELL: All eight episodes of season two of "Sleeper Cell" will be broadcast over the week of December 10th. And for those who want to watch it all at once, Showtime is experimenting with the new option of making all the episodes available on pay per view the first night. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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