If the mandate of pay TV (and increasingly TV in general) is to provoke and challenge conventions, then Showtime has surely done so with the premise and scheduling pattern of this 10-hour limited series about a terrorist cell in Los Angeles. It's rather in the implementation where "Sleeper Cell" becomes somewhat mundane -- essentially updating "White Heat," as an undercover agent infiltrates a ruthless gang, building toward a too-long-in-coming showdown.
If the mandate of pay TV (and increasingly TV in general) is to provoke and challenge conventions, then Showtime has surely done so with the premise and scheduling pattern of this 10-hour limited series about a terrorist cell in Los Angeles. It’s rather in the implementation where “Sleeper Cell” becomes somewhat mundane — essentially updating “White Heat,” as an undercover agent infiltrates a ruthless gang, building toward a too-long-in-coming showdown. As such, despite laudable elements — particularly the magnetic Oded Fehr as the cell leader — series is too uneven to dub this ambitious mission a complete success.
Making its debut during the pay net’s “free preview” weekend, the condensed exhibition window mirrors an old-fashioned miniseries, playing Sunday through Wednesday on successive weeks before culminating with a two-hour finale Dec. 18. In theory, it’s a savvy way to get the program noticed, during a stretch rife with holiday specs and reruns.
To its benefit, the narrative also uncomfortably echoes current events, including the notion of recruiting American Muslims via U.S. prisons (a similar effort was recently exposed) to execute terror strikes on U.S. soil.
In this case, however, the ex-con tapped by the terror ring, Darwyn (Michael Ealy), is really an undercover FBI agent assigned to penetrate the organization and get close to its mastermind, Farik (Fehr), who has assembled a strange roster of misfits. The band includes Tommy (Blake Shields), a blond-haired Berkeley youth; Ilija (Henri Lubatti), a Bosnian math whiz; and Christian (Alex Nesic), a French ladies’ man who drives a Hollywood tour bus.
As with reports about the 9/11 hijackers, “Sleeper Cell” finds irony in how these jihadists “go native” while stationed here, from frequenting strip clubs to holding all-American outdoor barbecues. It’s at the latter where Darwyn meets Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller), a single mom with whom he foolishly becomes romantically entangled.
That rather cliched relationship, along with occasional heavy-handed snippets of dialogue, detract from the cat-and-mouse thriller that series creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (“Bulletproof Monk”) have constructed, which proves initially engaging but sags in the middle episodes.
“I loved America, man,” Ilija says in discussing horrors inflicted in his country. “But you never came. Not for us.”
For what could be a political hot potato, the producers for the most part deftly straddle the line between drama and polemics about the nature of Islam. The tone toward the jihadists is by no means sympathetic, though the character development inevitably humanizes these extremist, would-be mass murderers as fathers and husbands who, in some of the better moments, sing karaoke, phone loved ones or indulge with prostitutes even as they prepare to sacrifice themselves.
Nor is the series without chilling flourishes, as Farik casually discusses the Rose Bowl, LAX and other potential targets. Aided immeasurably by Paul Haslinger’s score, certain sequences early on, in particular, are fraught with real tension.
Like many a cinematic heavy, Farik (who masquerades as a Jew) is ruthless and menacing, but equally seductive and charming. Fehr captures all of that, even saddled with a few too many “Death to America” tirades.
These various plusses, alas, are balanced by a surplus of negatives. Some of the situations, for example, feel forced or hackneyed. And in the weakest link, given how the project pivots on his role, “Barbershop” co-star Ealy simply doesn’t convey the grit or smarts necessary to sell his character. As constituted, both he and Darwyn seem over their heads, flashing pained expressions when making a sacrifice to protect his cover, while entering into the misguided dalliance with Gayle, birthing a parallel story line that’s at best a distraction.
Stripped of its politics, “Sleeper Cell” is primarily an intricate caper film, a crime yarn stretched out over 10 hours. Fairly or otherwise, however, the mere choice of subject matter requires it to connect on a deeper, more precise level that, ultimately, proves beyond its reach.