The first “Sleeper Cell” marked a triumph of concept over execution — a shortcoming underscored by this second crusade, which returns with most of the original’s strengths and all its weaknesses. Provocative in its exploration of a sleeper cell planning a strike on U.S. soil, the eight-part limited series (wisely scheduled over consecutive nights) is surely suspenseful but also unevenly acted, prone to clunky speechmaking and somewhat gratuitous in its preoccupation with holy-warrior sexual hypocrisy. All told, it’s perhaps the most PR-friendly and least convincingly realized of recent Showtime originals.
The show’s weakest link, unfortunately, remains its central character — Michael Ealy as FBI agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed, a Muslim whose undercover work thwarted a major terrorist strike on Los Angeles last time. Initially planning to take a teaching job, Darwyn gets sucked back “Godfather III”-style into the undercover game, assuming leadership of a misfit band of jihadists consisting of Benny (Kevin Alejandro), a Latino he met in prison; Mina (Dutch actress Thekla Reuten), a former prostitute who has adopted Islam; and Salim (Omid Abtahi), whose simmering anger has something to do with the circumstances surrounding his being shipped to the U.S.
Darwyn also has a new, weaselly FBI minder (Jay R. Ferguson), whose interference affects Darwyn’s relationship with girlfriend Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) now that she knows about his work, having met him while he was undercover.
The parallel plots involve previous cell mastermind Faris (Oded Fehr), who is subjected to brutal torture in U.S. custody, and Ilija (Henri Lubatti), who escaped apprehension and begins working his way toward refuge in Canada. Like the agent, though, the jihadists discover theirs is a mob that proves difficult to divorce.
Mirroring the day’s headlines, there are certainly notable moments in Faris’ ordeal, and Fehr is again the most compelling character — his faith and determination put to the test through the opening batch of episodes.
Ealy, however, is simply unconvincing as the FBI mole, mumbling his dialogue and looking woefully pained every time things don’t go according to plan. There are also far too many stilted exchanges discussing the holy Koran and who might be bastardizing its messages.
In similar fashion, the rest of the cell grapples with their own soap-opera elements, from Salim’s romantic life to Mina’s day job as an au pair — each steeped in incongruity given that they spend their off hours plotting how to martyr themselves and take Southern California with them.
To be fair, series creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris manufacture genuine moments of tension in the game of cat and mouse that plays out week after week, with the constant threat of exposure as Darwyn seeks to stave off lesser crimes long enough to determine where the major attack will occur. Yet as with Ealy’s performance, “Sleeper Cell” itself is too mannered and self-conscious — to the point where the audience becomes overly aware they are being fed a “Remember, not all Muslims are bad” speech, or a demonstration that both sides in the war on terror are prone to suffer bureaucratic nonsense.
Drama is always a high-wire act, and a degree of manipulation is to be expected. But “Sleeper Cell” not only exposes its strings; too often, it trips all over them.