Now, I'm not taking a pot-shot at 24 (one of my favorite programs...), but merely noting that thus far, Sleeper Cell hasn't endured any cringe-worthy "mountain lion" moments of disbelief (yeah, you know what I'm talking about...). Whereas 24 by necessity is slave to its revolutionary "real-time" style and format, Sleeper Cell boasts the luxury of beinga little more loose. It can afford to be both anxiety-provoking (like the Sutherland show...) and very thoughtful, even contemplative when the mood strikes.
For those who didn't watch the series the first year, Sleeper Cell is the tale of Darwyn (Michael Ealy), an FBI UC (undercover agent...) who - because of his devout faith in Islam - has joined the War of Terror against the Middle East radicals who have hijacked the name of Allah for their nefarious and murderous strikes on America. Darwyn is - to my knowledge, anyway - the only Muslim portrayed as an action hero on American television; and that's certainly noteworthy. Now, I'm not such a lefty that I think Islam should be championed or glorified all the time on TV (any more than Christianity should be...), but I do believe there's room for a TV series that examines the religion in a full-blooded, even-handed way, and makes a Muslim the protagonist. Sleeper Cell fills that niche. I like Darwyn as a hero; he lives up to his name, because he must be fit (and observant) to survive. He's constantly in danger of being exposed; and constantly being forced to question what people are doing in the name of his religion. And also what his government is doing in the war on that religion.
Anyway, in the first season, Darwyn successfully infiltrated and dismantled an Al-Qaeda cell working in Los Angeles that was planning to poison 150,000 Americans at Dodger Stadium. His nemesis was the cell's cunning, diabolical leader, Farik (Oded Fehr)...who was captured by American authorities in last year's season finale.
Season Two of Sleeper Cell opens with the installment called "Al-Baqara," an episode which finds Darwyn "decompressing" (according to the lingo...) on vacation in San Diego. He's become a beach bum along with his girlfriend Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) and her young son, Marcus. Darwyn's also been offered a teaching job at Quantico, which has the advantages of being "boring" and "safe," according to Gayle. But lo and behold, Darwyn's case agent Patrice (sexy Sonya Walger...) shows up with news that an old acquaintance of Darwyn's from his days undercover in prison - a Latino Islamist named Benito Velasquez - has turned up at a Mosque in California, and may be "radicalized." She asks Darwyn to do just one little job; to discover if Benito is working with terrorists or is (as he claims...) a "peaceful brother."
Naturally, this brief assignment turns into something far more dangerous as Darwyn is abducted and tested, and then recruited into a new terrorist cell. Darwyn's needed by this new group's leader, Khalid, because he still has access to Farik's financial connections...and the cell is in need of money. The new cell members include an Engineer from the UK, Benito Velasquez, who has gang connections, and Mina, a beautiful Dutch woman whose husband was a holy warrior, demolitions expert and martyr in Iraq. The scene that introduces these characters is great. Darwyn, hoping to prove his credentials as a radical, attacks Mina as "some white chick from Amsterdam" and argues that there is no place for women in the jihad. It's great stuff, and such layered material too. Darwyn isn't a sexist, but he plays one in the cell.
While Darwyn again navigates the tight-rope of undercover work, Sleeper Cell's second season also gazes at two other survivors of the Los Angeles cell from the first season. Farik is now in prison, and the episode's first shot is a long, slow pull-back of the terrorist kneeling in prayer....and then being interrupted by his captors. He is ruthlessly interrogated by a pair of American agents, one a good cop, one a bad cop. Chris Mulkey plays the good cop, a fella who attempts to play a mind-game on Farik that make the terrorist question his faith.
The other subplot involves Ilija (Henri Lubatti), who has dyed his hair blonde and is living with an American girlfriend. He's become paranoid (and he compulsively cleans her apartment so as not to leave DNA samples anywhere...). The episode is particularly clever in depicting this relationship. Ilija's girlfriend is a conspiracy-theorist who believes that Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani masterminded the terrorist attacks on 9/11 from a bunker in WTC 7. But, of course, she's actually shacking up with an honest-to-goodness terrorist.
This sub-plot is an example of one reason why I admire Sleeper Cell. It is even-handed; not taking sides, in what is clearly a controversial war. Conspiracy nuts are lampooned here for not believing that terrorists exist (or that they don't pose a danger), at the same time that America's ruthless interrogation tactics are attacked for their barbarity. In other words, both the extreme right and the extreme left take their shots here. And that's important. For me, the interrogation scenes are especially interesting. How do you apply force to save lives, while still retaining your humanity and morality? In the episode I saw, one American interrogator was a vicious bastard, both arrogant and ignorant...which is pretty deplorable. He makes a joke about going to the bathroom, asking if his crap is a "Shi'ite or a Sunni," for example. So...I wonder, can you use force without being racist or hateful? Can you hate the terrorists and what they stand for without also ridiculing the religion of millions? That's the question this episode raises; but it's not obvious or simple-minded (like, say, Battlestar Galactica's torture episode...).
Also, I must note that in its second season, so far, Sleeper Cell is revealing a bit more wit and humor than we saw in the first season. There's a funny sequence in which Darwyn points out Khalid's hypocrisy driving an SUV. Darwyn reminds the terrorist he could fund an attack for the price of the luxury vehicle. Khalid dismisses Darwyn's argument with the comment that a Land Cruiser is "the vehicle of choice for holy warriors across the world." Wonder when we'll see that line on Land Cruiser TV commercials...
"Al-Baqara" also talks a lot about faith; and what faith is and isn't. It balances the views of those who have faith with those who see organized religion (and faith) only as a tool of mind control; a way of separating us into teams. This is the kind of debate we - as Americans - have been denied in our public square for years, but at least our "art" is filling the gap.
Sleeper Cell season two is off to a good start, and I'll be blogging several more episodes this week...