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Criminal Minds: Sleeper Cell Goes Into the Heart of Terror

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Terrorists are like screenwriters. Their job is to look at ordinary situations and figure out how to apply horrible twists to them: how to turn an airplane into a cruise missile, or a shoe into a bomb. Like thriller writers, they want to dream up scenarios most of us are too conventional, or simply humane, to even imagine. That’s why writers have eerily anticipated terror attacks (an attempted plane-crash into the World Trade Center was a plot point in the 2001 TV series The Lone Gunmen). But Hollywood—for obvious commercial reasons—has focused more on the how than the why of terrorism.

But starting this weekend, it’s showtime for terrorists. Or rather, Showtime. The cable channel launches the two-week miniseries Sleeper Cell (debuts Sunday, check listings), an imperfect but chilling ten-hour look inside an al-Qaeda cell planning a spectacular attack on Los Angeles. Farik (Oded Fehr), the group commander, is a businesslike leader, with a doubly ironic cover: a security-company executive who coaches a Jewish boys’ baseball team. Unbeknowst to him, one of his recruits, Darwyn (Michael Ealy) is an FBI agent, an American Muslim who claims to have gone radical in prison.

Is the show political? No, not in any grandstanding sense. Yes, insofar as a bunch of partisan ignoramuses have declared that trying to understand why terrorists kill is mollycoddling Jane-Fonda-in-Hanoi-ism. But the show strains, sometimes mechanically, to be balanced and go beyond stereotypes. The cell itself, for instance, includes a Saudi, a French North African, a Bosnian and a John-Walker-Lindh-esque blond American, not to mention Darwyn, an African American. It’s a small Islamofascist world, after all!

If Sleeper Cell can sometimes feel like a forced tutorial, at least it challenges the view of Muslims and extremists as monolithic. One storyline shows the tensions between internationalists, like Farik, and nationalists, like an Indonesian he attempts to recruit who would rather kill infidels at home in Jakarta. The war on terror, the show argues, is a war within, not against, Islam, and it has many fronts. The best episode follows a charismatic Yemeni imam who wants to issue a fatwa against terrorism. And of course Darwyn is the moral center, irritated by anti-Muslim prejudice among his own countrymen, but furious at the likes of Farik for hijacking his religion.

All well and edifying, but at a 10-hour slog, Sleeper Cell had better be entertaining, and it is. Darwyn’s Donnie Brasco-like situation forces him to make horrible choices to keep his cover, and the terror plot is revealed gradually, with nicely played feints and constant low-boil menace. The script makes the cell members human and explains their  motives without ever excusing them. Ilija the Bosnian (Henri Lubatti) is a charismatic professor, with a taste for Western rap, who saw his family horribly murdered in the civil war and loathes the West for not helping; in one scene, he’s doing a karaoke rap to A Tribe Called Quest, in another, he delivers a disturbing, paranoid tirade against the Jews.

And who knew terrorists could be funny? When someone raises qualms about a  mission, Tommy (Blake Shields), the blond ‘burb-jihadi, blurts, "Dude, we’re f___in’ terrorists!" Then he catches himself. "Sorry, holy warriors." The big flaw is Farik, whom the script and Fehr never make more than robotically evil. The show also throws in an unnecessarily manipulative child-endangerment storyline to gild the tense climax.

In the end, Sleeper Cell is every bit as nailbiting as 24, with one crucial difference: neither the terrorists nor the Feds are supergeniuses. The cell members make dumb mistakes, as do Darwyn’s handlers and Darwyn himself (he foolishly gets romantically involved while undercover). The plot doesn’t get neatly resolved in 24 hours with the help of miraculous computer technology; it mainly comes down to Darwyn’s shoe-leather work.

In fact, if there’s one  thing that rings implausible about Sleeper Cell—given news reports about the state of counterterrorism efforts—it’s that the Feds would have such a well-executed, old-fashioned human-intelligence effort inside al-Qaeda. Of all the scary things about Sleeper Cell, that’s the one that will keep you up at night.