|Sleeper Cell: American Terror - Season Two (2006)
Starring: Michael Ealy, Oded Fehr, Henri Lubatti, Melissa Sagemiller, Omid Abtahi, Kevin Alejandro, Thekla Reuten, Jay R. Ferguson, Susan Pari
When it comes to the portrayal of terrorists on television these days, exposure has been extremely limited to the one-dimensional baddies that we're used to seeing on shows like “24.” While the FOX drama certainly isn’t to blame for resorting to such stereotypes as a means of creating entertainment, there comes a point in time when we have to ask ourselves, “But what about the other side of the story?” Showtime delivered the answer at the end of 2005 with the ten-part miniseries, “Sleeper Cell: American Terror.” The series quickly garnered critical acclaim for its unbiased glimpse into the Islamic religion and its defiance of major stereotypes – the most notable being that all terrorists hail from the Middle East – and as a result, the premium channel opted to renew the series for another run. Unfortunately, the second “season” isn’t nearly as enthralling as its predecessor, and while the final eight episodes help to wrap up loose plot threads, it ends on such a sour note that you can’t help but wonder why they even bothered in the first place.
Several months after the failed terrorist attack on Dodger Stadium, Muslim FBI agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) is forced to go undercover one last time as the new leader of the Los Angeles Cell. With a new team made up of unusual suspects – Salim (Omid Abtahi), a gay, British-raised Iraqi; Benito (Kevin Alejandro), a Latino-American ex-convict; and Mina (Thekla Reuten), a former Dutch prostitute and explosives expert – Darwyn faces a new challenge as he must help plan a nuclear attack. Meanwhile, after successfully escaping from captivity, Faris Al-Farik (Oded Fehr) begins plotting a new jihad in his native land with fellow extremist Ilija (Henri Lubatti), who has managed to escape to Europe with the help of a new look and a few friends.
The comparisons to “24” are to be expected, but ill conceived. Aside from the fact that both programs use the war on terror as the basis for their respective stories, there’s nothing about them that make either show even remotely alike. “24” is about a super-agent who repeatedly saves the day from impending doom (i.e. terrorist attacks), while “Sleeper Cell” is more concerned with educating its audience about the state of terrorism in the states. This isn’t to say that the latter doesn’t have its share of explosions or ridiculous plot devices (it does, and quite a lot considering its short run), but they all feel significantly more realistic when compared to the events that transpire during a single hour of “24.”
Of course, for a series that prides itself on its realism, “Sleeper Cell” does enjoy offing its main characters a little too much; especially considering how afraid it is of controversy. Not only does the series never choose a side (for/against the religious beliefs of its Muslim characters), but it seems like for every “bad” Muslim that is introduced, a “good” Muslim is brought in to balance out the equation. That’s not being unbiased, it’s just plain cowardly. Isn’t Darwyn a “good” enough Muslim to cancel out all of these nasty terrorists, and who’s to say that the peaceful Muslims are the “good” ones? All great questions, but none of which are ever properly attended to during the course of the series.
In spite of these issues, “Sleeper Cell” is still definitely worth checking out, and it’s nice to see that not only has Showtime been quick in releasing the series to DVD, but that the quality of the special features hasn’t suffered because of it. Presented in a three-disc box set (and featuring all eight episodes in a 16:9 widescreen video transfer), the second season of “Sleeper Cell” includes a 16-minute production featurette on the season finale (“Infiltrating the Final Cell”), an interview with two consultants from the FBI and CTU (“The Enemy Within,” and moderated by Michael Ealy), and “Farik’s Story,” a 90-minute mash-up of the character’s entire season two arc edited into one massive episode.Unfortunately, the strong collection of bonus material hardly makes this DVD release any more enticing. The show is good, yes, but it’s not great, and while any admirer of quality television will be glad they tuned in, Showtime has made the right move by choosing not to bring the series back for a third season. It’s not that the material isn’t interesting, but rather that it gets old very fast. Maybe it’s because I opted to watch both seasons back-to-back in preparation for this review, or maybe it’s because the show relies too much on the relationship between Darwyn and Farik (a dynamic that is sorely missed in the second season), but “Sleeper Cell” fails to outshine its previous success. Luckily, the show’s writers are probably more than aware of the disappointment; they did, after all, name their main character after the Father of Evolution himself.