We’ve just finished watching the first series of Sleeper Cell, a series focusing on an undercover FBI agent, Darwyn al-Sayeed, who infiltrates a terrorist sleeper cell planning an attack on Los Angeles.
On paper, there are a number of thematic similarities with 24 particularly in terms of the location. However although Jack Bauer has been known to go undercover, the real-time format of 24 precludes the kind of development that has occurred with Sleeper Cell. In many ways, Sleeper Cell is probably the more realistic show with a pretty slow burn in terms of the main plot. Having said that, as with most episodic dramas, each one hour episode (although Channel 4 showed them as double episodes), there is a dramatic finale, but without the restriction of the real-time element, they feel a lot less forced – sometimes the fact that the really dramatic stuff happens on the hour in 24 is decidedly false. Another big advantage of Sleeper Cell is that with an 8 episode series, it’s a lot more manageable to watch and keep track of the plot compared to the sprawling conspiracies that have marked out 24 over the years.
Another difference, especially from certain seasons of 24 is that the terrorist cell portrayed is significantly less stereotypical, including a Frenchman, and also an American convert. Compare this to some of the terrorist organisations in 24 who have been populated pretty well exclusively by Arab looking actors. In another interesting twist, Farik, the leader of the cell, is pretending to be Jewish – even training the synagogue softball team. Indeed Oded Fehr, the actor who plays the part is Israeli.
Like 24 they weren’t afraid of killing off key characters, with one member of the terrorist cell not surviving beyond the first episode – and his disappearance being reported to the local Police nearly messing up the entire undercover operation later on in the series. They also quite shockingly killed off Ray Fuller, Darwyn’s FBI supervisor and close friend, in a struggle with a young Afghan boy who Darwyn believed could be saved from becoming a terrorist, but Fuller tried to arrest. In the argument over whether he should be arrested, the young Afghan tries to escape, fatally stabbing Fuller in the process.
Perhaps the more interesting aspects of the series are the flashes you get of the backgrounds of the various cell members. For example Tommy, who looks like the classic all American boy, has a dysfunctional relationship with his parents, with his conversion to radical Islam almost seen as the ultimate rebellion against his parents. We also learn a little about the background of Christian, the French member of the group. We have to wait until the final episodes before we learn more about the background of Farik, when his wife appears on the scene from London. For obvious reasons we find out little about Darwyn, with only a single brief appearance of someone outside the FBI who knows his true identity.
The series has been renewed for a new season, which will see several parallel threads. The first series concluded with Farik imprisoned, and Ilija, the one member of the cell not to be arrested or killed, going on the run, so I imagine we will see Darwyn on a new case, and maybe Ilija and Farik appearing on the scene later on to cause problems. Certainly I’m sure we’ll be watching when the new series makes it’s appearance on UK TV.