December 22, 2005
Putting aside our Mona Eltahawy daydreams for a moment, and because I’ve been a delinquent contributor lately, here is a review of a miniseries I found last night while trying out the “on demand” feature on my digital cable box. Obviously I was trying to avoid finishing an entirely separate entry on Turkey, but since the show happened to be about a terror cell operating in post 9/11 America, I thought it might be worth mentioning here.
Of course, I’ve only managed to watch three episodes so far, so it may end up being a stupid series after all.
Judging by the exposed breasts (ah yes, brace yourselves, my male readers) and provocative subject matter, Sleeper Cell is clearly not for regular network television. Produced by Showtime (which, irritatingly, does not allow non-US visitors to view its website), it follows the progress of an Islamist terror cell as it plans a major attack on US soil. The twist to this tale is that the group has already been infiltrated by an FBI agent posing as a Muslim bent on jihad against the West. The twist to that twist is that he is in fact a devout Muslim, and seems to alternate between morbid fascination and utter revulsion at his terrorist comrades.
The parallels between this miniseries and Fox’s 24 are obvious, but Sleeper Cell focuses primarily on the terrorists’ lives, with only some references to the counterterrorism/intelligence apparatus monitoring them. The hero is an agent of course, but one gets an immediate sense that he is simply along for the ride and has very little control over the cell’s actions, and in particular its charismatic and delicious-looking leader, Farik (Oded Fehr).
Ah, Oded Fehr, where to begin. He played a stereotypical “noble Arab warrior” type in one of my favourite movies, a tacky yet oddly authentic (i.e. dialogue was written using actual Ancient Egyptian words and grammar) adventure flick called The Mummy. In Sleeper Cell, he is a magnetic sociopath who pretends to be Jewish, even going as far as playing coach to a Zionist little league team, the Sinai Maccabees (Fehr is Jewish in real life, which probably makes this part unusual, if not challenging). His perspective on Islam is deeply frightening, as is his ability to manipulate the emotions of his subordinates.
The most interesting aspect of the show so far is the diversity of the cell itself. Apart from Fehr’s character (hinting at Saudi, nationality may be revealed in later episodes), all the other members are non-Arabs: a Bosnian, an ex-skinhead Frenchman and a blonde, blunt-featured American. The FBI agent is black, an issue that is raised early in the show when his comrade wondered why an Arab would trust him with anything significant. Quite a lot of effort is put into developing the characters and revealing their motivations. In one scene, the Frenchman is sobbing on the phone with his Moroccan wife, telling her that he still imagines them together and wishes they could see one another again. It does not inspire sympathy, but it does give him some dimension. I am not personally fond of the brooding FBI agent or his on-again-off-again girlfriend, but the rest of the characters are a fairly interesting group of psychopaths.
Being a spy drama, Sleeper Cell does have its fair share of exotic and overdrawn storylines, such as the shootout in Tijuana between the cell members and a Mexican business partner who oversees local drug smuggling and child prostitution operations under the supervision of a “terrorist accountant”. Still, it is fun to watch, in spite of the occasional bit of moralizing on what it means to be Muslim (just in case viewers aren’t clear on the difference between Muslims and al-Qaeda).
I’m not sure if the miniseries is already over or if there will be reruns. Apparently the DVD version comes out in March 2006. In any case, the first three episodes are worth watching.
Posted by eerie at December 22, 2005 04:37 PM
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Showtime, this is cable?
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 22, 2005 10:22 PM
I think so. Like HBO.
Posted by: eerie at December 22, 2005 10:28 PM
dear e & l,
the dvd of the mini-series can be ordered here.
Posted by: raf* at December 23, 2005 11:10 AM
Can pre-order it now. March is the expected release date.
Probably somewhere on the internet though...
Posted by: eerie at December 23, 2005 11:21 AM
i do wonder if my dvd guy in downtown amman could get a copy ... that in & of itself would be an interesting topic: on what basis do the dvd shops chose their titles? their selections are quite eclectic and include the complete first season of "joey" ...
Posted by: raf* at December 23, 2005 12:24 PM
My dear Raf:
I always thought that the DVD places in downtown Amman got their titles by luck, based on the random supplies from Jordanians coming from hither and thither (thus the bizarre mix of regional coding as well).
I personally preferred to go to the proper DVD rental place near Shmeisani, the one near douar talit, near the palace. Nicely stocked that is, and no issues.
As to ordering from Amazon, where I am, there are issues. Wrong coding, customs and the like.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 23, 2005 12:36 PM
I'm actually rather interested, come to think of it, in scamming myself some decent copies of the Ramadan serials on terror. Saw some in my local DVD source, but the quality was quite awful. Even pirated, I do so prefer quality. Snob I am.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 23, 2005 12:38 PM
i'm afraid quality copies will be hard to come by. the series aren't published on dvd & thus one has to rely on whatever private persons have recorded. this will mainly be (bad) vcr quality, not digital.
of course, if you have connections (connexions?) to the t.v. stations themselves ...
Posted by: raf* at December 23, 2005 01:41 PM
I do, but they are not to be used for those sorts of things.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 23, 2005 03:55 PM