(Showtime) Ever since September 11th, 2001, Americans have been trying to understand the terrorist mind. It started with the question Why do they hate us? Now that we have a better grasp on that one, we've started to try to fathom the type of person that would choose to murder their fellow human beings for an ideology. Sleeper Cell makes an admirable attempt at this, giving us a diverse group of believers struggling with faith even as they plot atrocious crimes.
Of course, the show has to have a sympathetic protagonist. Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) is not a real terrorist; he's an FBI agent in deep cover, having done time in prison to establish his credibility with the jihadists. He's inducted into the titular cell run by Farik (Oded Fehr), a man dangerously certain of his worldview. The two have frequent discussions about the motivations of the players in their deadly game. In the course of one such discussion, Darwyn asks Farik, “Do you really believe it's all that black-and-white?” Farik pauses for a moment, then replies, “Yes. I do.”
Darwyn really is a Muslim outside of his cover story, but chooses to see Islam as a peaceful religion. He's forced to confront the violent side of his faith as he comes to know the other members of the cell on a personal level. They're not all as you might expect. Tommy Emerson (Blake Shields) is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American boy who seems to have adopted Islam out of a deep-seated rejection of his parents' lifestyle. Christian Aumont (Alex Nesic) is a veteran of the French Foreign Legion. Each man has his own path that has led him to become a “holy warrior.”
It's hard to say how accurate Sleeper Cell's depiction of terrorism may be; but it's probably safe to say that the characters make more sense as emblems of various groups that might have reason to hate the US than they do as living, breathing people. At its heart, the show is a spy thriller full of tense standoffs and races to foil destructive plots—but with thought-provoking angles on these tropes. In many ways, it's the antidote to 24: it offers similarly intense action and dire stakes, but it aims for shades of moral grey instead of good-vs.-evil melodrama.
The show also features many great little moments of conversation that offer insight into the psychology of these people. For instance, on a long car ride to meet a financier in Mexico, the men debate the virtues of Legos vs. GI Joes. It's an amusing bit of dialogue, but it has implications that reach further than may at first be apparent.
Sleeper Cell deserves praise for its daring philosophical exploration. First broadcast in 2005— when the US was still very much living in the shadow of its own fear— the show does a remarkable job of humanizing characters that lesser shows would treat as bad-guy cutouts. The terrorists aren't sympathetic, but they are shown as thinking individuals making moral choices based on the beliefs they've been taught since childhood. Their choices aren't ones we'd agree with, but seeing their motivations play out gives us a better idea of the complex forces at work in such an ideological battle. As Farik says, “Know your enemy.”
Why We Like It: a brave attempt to humanize extremists, a thoughtful exploration of an ideology, shows many sides of Islam, intense action and intrigue