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Sleeper Cell - First hour reviewed

Sleeper Cell

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

IT WAS nominated for a Golden Globe Award and has been described as “better than 24” by the New York Times, so now that it has finally arrived on Satellite Channel FX, does Sleeper Cell live up to the hype?

On the evidence of the first hour (screened on April 11, 2006), the answer is… almost. The show – a 10-hour mini-series – certainly boasts a brave and timely premise.

It follows a sleeper cell of terrorists who are planning an attack on LA, led by the ruthlessly efficient Farik (Oded Fehr). Primary among them is the team’s newest recruit, Darwyn Al Sayeed (Michael Ealy), an FBI agent who is deep undercover in the hope of taking the US into places they have never been before – ie, into the heart of Al Quaeda.

The remainder of the team is comprised of an American, Tommy (Blake Shields), who has grown resentful of his privileged upbringing; Ilija (Henri Lubatti), a Bosnian soldier resentful that the US abandoned his countrymen, French-born Christian (Alex Nesic), who just generally seems to hate all things American, and genial family man Bobby (Grant Heslov).

During the course of the opening hour, Darwyn must earn the trust of team leader, Farik, while putting his own faith as a Muslim to the absolute test.

Given the emotive subject matter, Sleeper Cell should prove a strong attraction to viewers who like to keep their finger on the pulse of cutting edge drama.

It’s tense, clever and keen to avoid easy stereotype. All of the terrorists have a story and a reason for their hatred of America. They bond over family barbecues and play football together, while justifying their actions with brief reminders of their pasts.

Yet crucially, the show’s writers and executive producers, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, go to extreme lenghts to show that these men are not representative of Muslims as a whole. Hence, Sleeper Cell is at pains to show how far-removed the unit is from the day-to-day rituals of the faith they claim to represent – or rather, how such faith can be distorted for political ends.

Darwyn, himself, resentfully concludes towards the end of the hour that ‘these guys have nothing to do with my faith’.

According to the PR, the creators of the show worked with joint terrorism task force veterans, FBI consultants, police technical experts and Arabic and Islamic cultural advisors to ensure that Sleeper Cell contains the utmost credibility.

As such, the scenes between the cell members – particularly when planning the mystery attack – are the most compelling and the show has two charismatic leads in Ealy and Fehr. Unfortunately, the episode was less successful when dealing with everyday melodrama.

Darwyn’s reluctant decision to hook up with pretty single mother Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) for some soft-focus sex threatens to lend the show a needless sub-plot that could well detract from the main interest point.

Darwyn is clearly under enough pressure without having to worry about a new relationship but American programme producers cannot seem to resist the temptation to throw in such devices at will – something that even 24 is culpable of. It means audiences could well be faced with some unnecessary distractions.

That said, the episode finished on a terrifying high when one of the unit was exposed as ‘a traitor’ and mercilessly slaughtered in the desert. The scene ended the hour on a chilling note, while hinting that the show won’t shy away from depicting the extremities adopted by such self-confessed extremists.

It also cleverly set into play the battle of wits that will surely develop between Darwyn and Farik as the former attempts to impress his leader without compromising his cover – a difficult balancing act that is sure to place a heavy burden on his sense of right and wrong.

An impressive start, then, for Sleeper Cell’s 10-week journey that looks set to challenge and excite viewers in equal measure…