Test Pilot: File #55, Sleeper Cell

Test Pilot #55: Sleeper Cell

Debut date: December 4, 2005

Series legacy: A well-received, but mostly forgotten product of a mostly forgotten time in Showtime’s history

Happy Wednesday ladies and gentlemen. Welcome back to another edition Test Pilot. Today, we begin our 13th theme, one that I am very curious to see play out over the next eight weeks: “War on Terror” television. Often times, I pick themes and series/pilots with some idea of how certain posts will go or what discussions might come up, but with this one, I am not entirely sure what will happen or where myself and my four wonderful guests will go. The mystery surrounding this theme’s direction is fostered by a group of programs that had very wide-ranging amounts of success during their respective stints on the air and also stems a great deal from the overarching topic area.

The War on Terror. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people (and again, I hope that those different ideas or ideologies come out in these pieces) and for good reason: It’s a somewhat vague and blanket term for an expansive, complicated–and some would say convoluted–and expensive (both in finances and in life) string of events, actions, groups of people, etc. If we move forward with the assumption that the War on Terror began with the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001, this thing, whatever it is, has been going on for more than a decade now and it has certainly had a dramatic impact on all of our lives in both the macro and micro sense.

And yet, despite the War on Terror’s influence on daily life, we haven’t seen much of that translate to the small screen of television. While a number of shows have used bits and pieces of War on Terror stories or headlines to power individual episodes, very few shows have been directly about the War on Terror, its place in our culture or the people wrapped up in it. Throughout this theme, I hope that we can highlight some of the series that actually did engage with the WoT and the rhetoric surrounding it, but also think about or discuss why so few did/do and what that has meant for the medium and even for viewers at home.

We kick things off today with Showtime’s Sleeper Cell, a program that had an interesting time on the air. Both of Cell‘s seasons aired in a very short time period, with multiple episodes airing in a single week, leading to a whole “season” being completed in just a few weeks not unlike a miniseries (in fact, Sleeper Cell was entered into the miniseries/TV movie category at the Emmy awards). The second season had a tagline (“American Terror”) and some of the cast changed, which sort of differentiated the two years of the project, but the lead characters remained the same and the topic area was generally similar. Showtime wasn’t the network then that it is now and so I don’t recall Sleeper Cell being that influential or beloved at the time, although my research tells me that it was well-regarded enough in its time on the air. In any event, Cell didn’t leave much of a lasting impact on television or Showtime and six years after it ended, I struggled to find anyone who had even seen it, let alone like it (which is likely why I had some initial trouble finding a co-writer for this one).

In any event, joining me today is Kevin McFarland. Kevin is an entertainment and sports writer from San Francisco currently living in Chicago, which is nice, but the Third Coast is no match for the mix of mountains and ocean out west. He’s a frequent contributor to The A.V. Club, writes a monthly column on children’s television for This Was TV, and has written for ChicagoSide Sports, Pick-and-Pop Culture, and various music blogs. A graduate of Northwestern University and an avid fan of the Cardiac ‘Cats, he doesn’t really mind that they don’t seem to be able to win a bowl game. He’s currently going through another one of his Elliott Smith phases, and started the Tumblr Old Yelliott Smith as a fun outlet because the combination of cute puppies and great music is irresistible. Follow Kevin on Twitter.

My favorite television show to debut in the 2011-2012 season was Homeland, which shares a lot of subject matter with Showtime’s first foray into War on Terror material, the two season miniseries Sleeper Cell. [Side note: I’m going to discuss a lot of similarities between Homeland and Sleeper Cell, in case you’d like to remain unspoiled.] But five more years removed from 9/11 changed the conversation considerably, with less xenophobic panic and a lot more deep thinking on the affect the war was having on returning soldiers who couldn’t reintegrate into American society. Sleeper Cell takes a different angle on the War on Terror than Homeland, and the six years between the two productions say a lot about how much depictions of that aspect of our lives changed between the fifth and tenth anniversaries of the September 11th attacks.

 The pilot opens on Darwyn al-Hakim, an African-American Muslim on his last day in prison. He meets with his friend The Librarian, who gives him a public locker key, which Darwyn uses on the outside to find a Quran with a note giving him a time and place to arrive. It turns out to be a synagogue, and Darwyn argues with a Jewish man, who turns out to be Faris al-Farik, the charismatic, undercover leader of a terrorist cell. Darwyn’s past is mostly obscured, slowly teased out over the course of the pilot, and Michael Ealy plays him so close to the vest and muted that he’s difficult to pin down from scene to scene, adding to the air of mystery throughout. Faris al-Farik, the leader of the cell, isn’t the same. He’s not quite a caricature, but he’s even less nuanced than Abu Nazir, the Al Quaeda leader in Homeland who tips the show towards over-emotive melodrama whenever he shows up in Brody’s flashbacks.

Another bit of discomfort stems from the lengths Sleeper Cell goes to show that not all terrorists come from the Middle East. Diversified terrorist membership isn’t just a way to avoid stereotyping, it’s become a commonly employed element in media about the War on Terror ever since the John Walker Lindh case, right up to the main thrust of Homeland. A Frenchman, a Bosnia, and a white guy round out al-Farik’s cell, with varying motives. On the one hand, it’s a good thing that the show didn’t just roundup a bunch of Middle Eastern actors to have them play terrorists, reinforcing some the stereotypes that the show attempts to confront as complex ethnic issue. On the other, the original tagline for Sleeper Cell was “Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists.” which feels a bit like fear mongering, as though anyone, even your quiet next-door neighbor who’s just like you, might be a terror suspect.

The most interesting scene in the entire pilot to me is the one that seems the most prescient today. After Darwyn and Bobby tail the teenage girl, Bobby drops Darwyn near an MTA station. In a mostly empty train car, a group of drunk, young white men—including a pre-Big Love and Breaking Bad Aaron Paul—approach a man with a religious head covering. They start harassing the guy, and Paul’s character even calls him an “Arab faggot” before the inevitable starts. Darwyn jumps up and decimates the punks, breaking arms, crushing faces, and after the carnage, he lets loose a valuable lesson: the man is a Sikh, not a Muslim. This is an incredibly resonant moment today, specifically because morons like this pathetic group of bums keeps making the idiotic assumption that not only are all Muslims terrorists, but that Islam is the only Middle Eastern religion. It’s far more serious than something like mixing up two Christian denominations—except perhaps the Protestant/Catholic divide in Ireland. Still, this was a big issue in the aftermath of 9/11, when other religions that appeared like Islam to uninformed Americans, and the cultural ignorance lingers today.

As an introduction to the world of the show, the pilot does follow a carefully plotted structure. It runs just under an hour-long, and during the first half, we see Darwyn get out of prison with some leading material, casually join a terrorist cell, attend the birthday party of a newfound friend’s daughter, and then with a simple camera switch from color to black and white, the show lets us know that everyone is under surveillance. Someone is watching them, so they aren’t completely unknown. Then, at literally the midpoint of the pilot—seriously, at the 30-minute mark—Darwyn meets with his parole officer, who turns out to be his FBI handler, and the curtain falls down. Darwyn is an undercover operative, infiltrating al-Farik’s terrorist cell in attempt to bring it down from the inside.

Perhaps more importantly, he’s not faking the Muslim part, which creates a few more interesting wrinkles. It’s not exactly clear how Darwyn identifies within Islam, but Black Muslims have historically been seen as a separate sect from mainstream Islam, and not part of the plight against the West. Darwyn is intelligent enough to spout off religious information to the goons on the MTA, and he makes it clear to his handler that whatever al-Farik has planned, it doesn’t fit his view of what Islam stands for. He’s a sympathetic and heroic Muslim character, and when he swears an oath to a live a life of Jihad against God’s enemies after the show’s first unspeakable horror (and kind of unsurprising twist, I’ll be honest), because of what the viewer knows it’s implied that those enemies are the other members of the cell through his interpretation of his religion.

It’s too bad then, that the mind-bogglingly stupid romantic elements of Sleeper Cell threaten to destroy the show within the pilot. The show doesn’t even wait to plant seeds of a romance between Darwyn and Gayle, as they go from meet-cute-ish to making out behind a grocery store on a cigarette break to sleeping together. This is Showtime, a network that broadcasts adult programming, and like fellow premium cable network HBO, they must have a quota of Boobs Per Episode (BPE from now on in anything I write for the rest of time), generously supplied by Melissa Sagemiller.

This is probably the most disappointing aspect in light of Homeland’s first season last year, since that show managed to render almost every moment of its romantic relationships painfully dramatic. Brody’s return drives a huge wedge into his wife’s secret partner, and that tension bubbles up with rage over the course of the show. Mandy Patinkan’s inability to separate work and home life is his tragic arc. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen another show succeed so completely when bringing two unhinged leads together like Homeland did with Carrie and Brody. For my money, the best dramatic episode of the last year was “The Weekend,” a crushing, sensual, and crackling roller coaster that wrenched from peak to valley depicting Carrie and Brody’s whirlwind affair. To compare that intimate yet colossal episode to Sleeper Cell dwarfs how basic Darwyn and Gayle’s interactions are from the outset.

Sleeper Cell wasn’t the first counter-terrorism show to debut after 9/11—that would be 24, which had the dubious honor of premiering a mere two months after the attacks. But Sleeper Cell gets to tackle an issue that a major network show might not be able to—sympathetic Muslim characters, and the prejudice of Americans towards Middle Eastern and Eastern religions. Gun-slinging, ass-kicking, minute-to-minute narrative like 24 patriotically chest-thumps with the most outlandish propaganda, but Sleeper Cell was a more complex and subtle attempt to depict the War on Terror on home soil. It’s not Homeland, but that show is about a different aspect of the war, about soldiers returning home, the ethics of entering into combat in the first place, and the increasing paranoia of CIA investigations within our own borders. As a precursor to a much more confident and organized series, Sleeper Cell came around during a time when the show’s kind of story was what viewers could handle after five years.

What about you Cory? Did you see something else in Sleeper Cell, and more importantly, can you beat the number of times I mentioned Homeland?

–KM

Thanks Kevin. Some thoughts on Sleeper Cell from me:

Unfortunately, with any minority group, the question often remains: Is representation enough? We are all very aware of how homogeneous media texts can be (sup, white men?) and people outside of the dominant and heteronormative groups (read: everyone else) struggle with how they are represented in those media texts (among struggling with other, likely more important things). One could say that television has gotten “better” at portraying women and people of different races–though it clearly doesn’t do particularly well with either still–but religion is a topic that contemporary mainstream scripted television typically stays away from, so good luck even being shown, let alone represented in a complicated, distinctive way.

Unsurprisingly, in the years after 9/11, when scripted television actually engaged with religious issues and/or brought up the topic of Muslims in contemporary society, it used Islam and people of the Muslim faith as a simplistic crutch to create villains. This is an easy example and one that we will get into in a few weeks as the theme continues, but I’d wager that when you ask viewers about recent portrayals of Muslims on American television, something like 24 would immediately come to mind: Generic, extremist and interchangeable. Sure, you could say that series like 24 literally showed Muslims to American audiences, but you certainly couldn’t say that the series did anything with the faith and the characters representing it. Even now in 2012, it’d be tough to claim that television (or any part of the media) has done right by the Islamic faith.

Which, I guess, in theory, probably made Sleeper Cell an appealing project back in the mid-aughts when we were at the beginning of Bush II’s second term and maybe not entirely ready to talk about these issues in any measured way. A show with multiple Muslim characters?! And the lead character is a Muslim too?! That’s just insanity! This was also part of that era where cable networks were still trying to be HBO by doing projects that seemed risque, and that’s sort of reflected in the slogan for Cell: “Cities. Suburbs. Airports. Targets.” Showtime surely thought that the project had value otherwise they wouldn’t have picked it up, but I’m sure that the somewhat challenging subject matter (and ultimately, the snappy tagline) with the possibility to offend  probably nudged it along even further.

But again, in theory, a series built around a number of Muslim characters, many of whom who believe different things (sometimes slightly different, other times drastically different) and act accordingly, sounds pretty great. Making the story the faith, but not necessarily couching that faith in typical racial terms? That sounds cool too. There is all sorts of story avenues, particularly on pay cable, and there is an opportunity to not only literally and simply represent Muslims, there is also an opportunity to dig into the reasons people believe what they believe and what actions people take in name of those beliefs. Again, in theory, this is what Sleeper Cell could have accomplished in its time on the air. And while I think that the miniseries makes some attempts at doing those types of things in this pilot episode (and the one other episode I watched), it is also too wrapped up in the conventional trappings of its generic narratives, character types and ideology that it doesn’t really make time to accomplish those perhaps more interesting and progressive goals.

The pilot episode of Sleeper Cell is really the story of two different miniseries. The first half of this hour-long effort is measured and quiet, yet still intense. It methodically follows Darwyn from his jail cell to free life on the street, slowly letting us into his closed-off persona. His religious beliefs are a big part of that persona and some of the dialogue describing Darwyn’s beliefs is a bit rough, but Michael Ealy does a fine job of embodying a character who clearly has a lot to hide, even if he also has a lot that he wants to say. Kevin’s correct about the subway scene, as it has even more power beyond the subject broached because so much of the episode to that point had been calm and still. There’s an anger (or at least frustration) in Darwyn that, by all accounts, appears to be real. Or at least Sleeper Cell leads you to believe it is. 

As Darwyn gets wrapped up in Faris’ extremist terrorist cell, the pilot sets up some compelling tensions and diegetic questions to be answered. How will these dueling views of the Islamic faith fit together — or will they at all? How far will Darwyn’s anger/frustration push him? Outside of the story world, there are more questions: Can Sleeper Cell actually give us multiple complex portraits of a faith and belief system that very few western Hollywood media texts have? Is the series going to take faith seriously?

Halfway through the pilot, I felt like Cell was at least going to at least try to answer these questions, even if the resulting story wasn’t as engaging something like 24. Then, as Kevin mentioned, at the 30-minute mark, Sleeper Cell pulls the rug out from underneath the viewer and recontextualizes everything. Darwyn, while still a Muslim, is also a FBI agent deep undercover with hopes of taking down Faris’ powerful and dangerous group of extremists. What appeared to be a cerebral drama with thriller underpinnings about faith and crime in 21st century America quickly turns into a more familiar crime thriller with less emphasis on the cerebral character stories and more on the “Oh my gosh, he’s a fed!” stories. To continue referring to the obvious reference points, in that one reveal, Sleeper Cell moves further away from Homeland on the continuum and much, much closer to 24

On a narrative level, making Darwyn an undercover agent makes him no different from Jack Bauer and those 71 times he went undercover on 24. Darwyn is forced to do things he doesn’t want to do, harm people he doesn’t want to harm and generally make hard choices in the name of keeping up the front. The one twist here is that Darwyn is not only “betraying his country,” he’s also eschewing his beliefs and jump-starting a war within himself. I guess you could argue that the fact that he isn’t pretending to be Muslim is an effective wrinkle and to be fair, that wrinkle does create some moderately compelling drama in this pilot effort. Nevertheless, we already knew he was Muslim and had issues with what Faris was trying to accomplish. Making him a FBI agent stabilizes that already-present tension, it makes it more familiar and the rest of the episode follows a familiar pattern of gritted-teeth sacrifices involving violence and internal strife.

That problematic familiarity simply undercuts what was initially interesting. Not only does the narrative lock in to a more recognizable pattern with typical tropes but the reveal about Darwyn’s professional identity undercuts Cell‘s ability to establish progressive representation. Sure, the miniseries goes out of its way to point out that Muslims are different and come from different places, a move that I appreciate and respect. Nevertheless, Sleeper Cell also reaffirms unfortunate constructions of western power and force by making Darwyn an agent of the law. The project already takes a possibly-difficult stance by making its “good” Muslim a black guy and its “bad” guy someone who more looks the part (even though Oded Fehr is Jewish), therefore establishing a certain race-based hierarchy of good and evil based on audience familiarity with those races, and then exacerbates that by having the protagonist work for the government. Thus, Sleeper Cell is basically telling the audience, “Hey, Muslims come in all shapes and sizes. BUT, the bad ones are who you thought and the good ones work for the government and try to stop the bad ones so they’re okay.” Maybe I’m inferring a little there, but it’s hard not to see that in how the story unfolds here.

Ultimately then, Sleeper Cell returns us to the questions of representation. I would say that the miniseries is admirable for trying to present a diverse picture of Muslim characters, but not that admirable. The lines between good and bad are still drawn pretty clearly–no matter what Darwyn is forced to do, he’s doing it in the name of the law–and the lead character’s faith, while important, seems more like a writerly tool at times than an actual character trait. While this pilot isn’t that great to begin with (it’s not bad, though), Sleeper Cell is much too interested in barely subverting its generic trappings to actually make salient points about faith or the people who follow certain ones. 

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Probably rightfully forgotten, despite a decent attempt to do something different

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3 thoughts on “Test Pilot: File #55, Sleeper Cell

  1. “Sleeper Cell” is far superior to “Homeland.” “Homeland” has good acting, I’ll give it that. But the plot is ridiculous, and has only been getting even more so in its second season. Also, what point is there in trying to write a comprehensive review of SC based entirely on its first episode?

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