Uncovering the Plot

Showtime’s Sleeper Cell.

Sleeper Cell: American Terror

Variously sober and goofy, conceived with sensitivity yet executed with notable crassitude, the second season of the terrorism drama Sleeper Cell (Showtime, 9 p.m., through Sunday) is a conflicted affair, high-minded but lowbrow. The show’s very scheduling—its eight episodes are airing on consecutive nights—is Showtime’s way of signaling that what we have here is an “event” akin to the megawatt miniseries of yesteryear, and the producers have said that Sleeper Cell is both a depiction of “a war within Islam for the soul of the religion” and “a shocking reminder of the challenges facing America as we purse a global war on terror.” The show has bigger fish to fry than a straight-ahead terror thriller like 24 does, and it broods about issues of culture, patrimony, policy, and jihad very broodingly indeed.

Yet it’s also the kind of series in which the hero doesn’t play by the book in a distinctly by-the-book fashion and where the villain, asked if his recent harsh words constitute a threat, tells his interlocutor that it was not in fact a threat but a promise. An improbable child-custody storyline sprouts as if planted and cared for by someone whose sole aim was appealing to women between the ages of 25 and 54. And that campaign for the soul of Islam would seem to boil down, in the season’s closing moments, to an old-fashioned fistfight: The Good Muslim (an FBI agent) and the Bad Muslim (an al-Qaida leader) brawl in the streets of Yemen and sprawl in the horse-opera dust, and it is, this time, personal. Sleeper Cell is hiding a pulp western inside its copy of Foreign Affairs and not really paying attention to either.

In the first season of Sleeper Cell, that FBI agent, a black American named Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy), went undercover to infiltrate a terror cell based in L.A. and, ultimately, thwarted a plan to blow up Dodger Stadium. Some of you are fantasizing that, this time around, the target will be the L.A. Lakers, but you’re out of luck. Just when Darwyn thought he was out—that he might head to a desk job in Quantico and take his lady love with him—he follows orders to check up on a suspect, which leads him into a new cell, which leads me to ask: Why doesn’t he bust these guys in, say, the middle of the third episode? There is, by that point, evidence enough to put away this pack of mujahedeen and no inkling that Darwyn will disrupt a larger scheme or gain any deeper knowledge. But plausibility isn’t Sleeper Cell’s strong suit: I’d been under the impression that years of planning went into al-Qaida attacks, but the dudes here are all over the place—shopping for surface-to-air missiles one moment, scrounging up demolition explosives the next, improvising like jazz pianists all the way.

They settle, at last, on some nuclear fuel rods, but the producers care less about the terrorist plot than their terrorists’ subplots, the tangle of intriguing stories they’ve overstuffed the series with: Salim (Omid Abtahi), the London-bred son of Iraqi exiles, is a closeted homosexual, and we’re meant to understand that his self-hatred fuels his infidel-hatred, which is debatable as psychology but compelling enough as drama. Mina (Thekla Reuten), a Dutch convert to Islam, is the widow of a fundamentalist who died in Iraq, and Reuten portrays her as a steely enigma, someone lonely beyond reach. Meanwhile, Faris Al-Farik (Oded Fehr), the mastermind of the Dodger Stadium attack, begins this season in the custody of the CIA, where the good-cop-bad-cop routine is apparently still in style. Fehr’s performance—the seeming ease with which he turns Farik into television’s silkiest and most magnetic psychopath—is what makes you stick with the show through its missteps and excesses.

The coming Sunday’s episode leaves the door open for a third season of Sleeper Cell, an occurrence that would be welcome if the show resolves its tonal problem, dropping the prestige-project airs and getting back to basics. You forgive the patent ridiculousness of 24—you embrace it, in fact—because 24 has roughly the same aspirations as Die Hard With a Vengeance. It’s a thriller; it thrills. Sleeper Cell, on the other hand, wants to be the TV analogue of Syriana and stumbles, delivering just a few ideas meaty enough to chew on and only a couple sequences exciting enough to gasp at. It might be an event, but it’s often uneventful.