Many hit shows — “Lost,” “Medium” — grab us by exploiting our imagined fears. This year, “Sleeper Cell” sustained 10 hours of nail-biting suspense by playing off some very real ones.
When terrorism became an acceptable topic in popular culture post 9/11, TV trivialized it, at least in the eyes of creator-producers Ethan Rieff and Cyrus Vorus. Rieff decries “the same old outlandish villains: Eurotrash assassins-for-hire and rogue CIA agents seeking payback.
“There are, out there, real people who actually do want to set off a nuclear device in Los Angeles. For a change, why not do a show that focuses on these people who really exist?” Vorus points to “a widespread feeling of: Am I safe? Can I bring my kids to a mall without some nut bringing in a bomb? That’s part of the straightforward suspense throughline of the show that everyone can relate to.”
Mini’s cross section of fundamentalist types permitted the scripts to touch on such heady and little-known topics as the differences between radical and moderate Islam and disputed Quran interpretations.
“It’s not that we’re teaching lessons,” Rieff says, “but just that we’re doing something new in the arena.” Authenticity was enhanced by close cooperation with both law enforcement and the L.A. Muslim community. Producers even got permission to shoot in a local mosque during services.
“The fact that we were offering a Muslim-American hero (an undercover FBI agent) on American TV for the first time really got a lot of people on our side,” claims Vorus. “Here you had guys who had never set foot in a mosque and never would again. It was a fascinating cultural blending.”
Current events even contributed to the show’s getting picked up. Rieff reports that execs were dubious about the premise until “a story in the spring of ’04 came out of London, where a terror cell that was building a fertilizer bomb had been infiltrated by an MI-5 agent who was actually a practicing Muslim. I emailed it right away to Showtime and said, ‘See, our show really happened, over in England!'”
“Sleeper Cell” sold shortly thereafter.