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Sleeper Cell: Season 1 Review

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A slightly more subtle thriller on terrorism.

★★★★

Where is the line between simple believer and religious fanatic? This is the question at the heart of Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’ thoughtful treatment of terrorism in modern-day America. How does a devout, law-abiding Muslim’s ideology differ from that of a jihadi, and under what conditions might the former be pushed to become the latter?

It’s a million miles from the heavy-handed if hugely enjoyable anti-terrorist romps we’re treated to on 24. Kiefer Sutherland’s one-man crusade against terror employs far broader strokes, motivation taking a back seat to spectacle as Jack Bauer introduces his foot to extremist ass. Sleeper Cell, by contrast, is a far more grounded and disturbing experience. The terrorists here, for example, are a far cry from the usual Kalashnikov-waving fanatics. The unlikely line-up comprises a blond, all-American boy (whose radicalism seems primarily devised to piss off his liberal parents); a womanising, French ex-skinhead who drives a tour bus; and a Bosnian school teacher with a penchant for hip-hop and karaoke. Only their leader (played by a superbly sinister Oded Fehr) fits the stereotypical Middle Eastern mould, coldly relaying orders from his hidden superiors and laying out plans for the slaughter of civilians with the insouciance of someone ordering a low-fat latte.

Michael Ealy (Barbershop, 2 Fast 2 Furious) is the standout though, providing a nuanced performance as Darwyn Al-Sayeed, the FBI agent who infiltrates this cell. It’s through his eyes that we witness the events in motion — a perspective made all the more interesting by his being a devout Muslim himself. That the show attempts to place the differences between a terrorist agenda and those of mainstream Islam in such stark relief is a refreshing alternative to the lazy Islamophobia that so often seems to accompany this subject. The point is hammered home quite clumsily in certain episodes (one particular instance sees Darwyn enlisted for a neighbour’s son’s show-and-tell day at school, allowing him to answer questions like, “Do all Muslims hate us?”), but it’s to the writers’ credit that theyset out to engage viewers’ brains as well as their adrenal glands.

You can’t fault the series’ credentials as a pure, visceral thriller either. Much like the cell members, we’re given only the information we need at each step, the larger operation drip-fed over all ten episodes. The resulting suspense ratchets up notch by notch, building steadily to a finale as nerve-fraying as anything Jack Bauer’s power hour could produce.

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