The Forgotten Counterterrorism Drama That Put 24 to Shame

TV Features Sleeper Cell
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The Forgotten Counterterrorism Drama That Put <i>24</i> to Shame

To re-enter the world of 24 with 24: Legacy, which debuted Sunday night on Fox, is to step into a time capsule of sorts. Though Kiefer Sutherland is no longer the star—Corey Hawkins, recently of The Walking Dead and Straight Outta Compton, takes over leading-man duties—nothing much in the universe has changed: The heroes are American, the villains are Middle Eastern, and there’s always either a mole or a suspicion of one in the terrorism-fighting division known as CTU. In the context of President Donald Trump’s recent executive order clamping down on the ability of Muslims from seven Muslim-majority countries to enter the United States, the racial dynamics of 24: Legacy can’t help but feel retrograde, maybe even distasteful.

Though 24 did manage to dramatize some gray areas within its good-versus-evil binaries: Season Four’s Dina Araz (Shohreh Agdashloo), for instance, whose love for her son led her to betray her husband’s terrorist cause. And, of course, there was always Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, giving up pieces of his soul season by season even as he kept saving the world from destruction—Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow’s series generally treated sociopolitical matters with broad comic-book strokes, because too much nuance arguably would have detracted from the balls-out thrills of its action sequences, cliffhangers and headlong forward momentum.

In December 2005, though, a series premiered on Showtime that can be seen, especially now, as a response to the simplistic geopolitics proffered by 24: Sleeper Cell. The series ran for a mere two seasons (18 episodes in total) before cancellation, but with 24 continuing to live on through the likes of Legacy and its predecessor, the Sutherland-led 24: Live Another Day, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’s series deserves to be rediscovered. It’s a more thoughtful alternative to the America-first perspectives of its longer-lasting post-9/11 contemporaries.

At heart, Sleeper Cell is another narrative of American law enforcement taking down Muslim terrorists. But instead of making its hero a white American like Jack Bauer, the series centers around a Black American Muslim named Darwyn al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy). In the pilot episode, we first see Darwyn being released from prison and courted by the series’ main antagonist, a charismatic Arab extremist named Faris al-Farik (Oded Fehr), to join his team of “holy warriors” as they plan a deadly terrorist attack in Los Angeles. Only about halfway through the episode do we discover that Darwyn is, in fact, an FBI agent on a deep-cover assignment to infiltrate Farik’s group and prevent that attack. Through its first season, Reiff, Voris and company thus offer the kind of detailed, eye-opening look at the inner workings of a terrorist cell that 24 only grazed, at best. And by featuring a Muslim who fundamentally disagreed with the terrorists’ interpretation of the Quran and their murderous methods, Sleeper Cell touched on a deeper conflict that 24 wouldn’t have dared raise: a struggle for the soul of Islam itself.

Certainly, you won’t see on 24 the kind of earnest conversations between characters about their religious faith: their varying interpretations of the Quran, the way their own personal experiences inform their beliefs, and even Darwyn’s occasional attempts to sway these fundamentalist Muslims to act in a more humane manner. Both seasons, for instance, feature a scene in which one or all of the members of the respective cells attend a public service at a mosque in which they find their radical beliefs challenged by a more peaceful interpretation, one presumably closer to Darwyn’s own tenets. Amid its suspense and action set pieces, the series frequently takes time out to stage a genuine dialogue between these two diametrically opposed takes on Islam.

That struggle also manifests itself in its daringly complex characterizations of the terrorists themselves—an ethnically diverse bunch of supporting characters, all of them united by grievances against the U.S. that have led them down the path of what they see as righteous martyrdom. Some are more hotheaded than others: In Season One, Tommy (Blake Shields), a former Army soldier whose general distrust of authority prompted him, at least in part, to convert to Islam, proves to be the most unstable of the bunch; Season Two, subtitled American Terror, features an Iraqi-born, U.K.-raised Muslim, Salim (Omid Abtahi) whose struggles with his closeted homosexuality lead him to rash acts of violence and near-violence. Some even stray from the hard line in their personal lives, like Season One’s Christian (Alex Nesic), who indulges in frequent one-night stands despite being married to a woman back in Belgium.

Others, though, are driven by understandable anti-American impulses. Ilija (Henri Lubatti), Farik’s Bosnian right-hand man, witnessed his entire family killed in the Bosnian genocide and turned against the Americans when he saw none of them lift a finger to help his people. Then there’s Season Two’s Mina (Thekla Reuten), a Dutch woman and former prostitute who married an Islamic fundamentalist man, and who watched him die at the hands of American forces in Iraq and lost an unborn child as well. By comparison, 24 pays mere lip service to character details that might allow us to imagine why its villains act as they do, mostly reserving its sympathies for those caught in the middle; rarely has 24 challenged us to see the world from the extremist’s perspective as Sleeper Cell often tried to do.

Darwyn is ultimately our surrogate into this world, and like Jack Bauer, he has a personal life that eventually dovetails with his undercover work in dangerous ways. This mainly takes the form of Gayle Bishop (Melissa Sagemiller), a single mom with whom Darwyn develops a romantic relationship. However professionally ill-advised this is, considering Darwyn’s own perpetually shell-shocked disposition, the romance makes emotional sense, as it suggests the kind of stability this former U.S. Army Ranger, who is now living an endless double life, perhaps yearns for, deep down. As with Bauer, though, Darwyn eventually discovers the futility of such a paradisiacal oasis; Sleeper Cell’s second season climaxes in a tragedy that threatens to throw Darwyn off not only from his own life, but also from the moral and spiritual compass that had guided him through thick and thin in the past.

That shorter second season (eight episodes versus Season One’s 10) brought the reluctant Darwyn back into action, this time going undercover as a leader of a new Los Angeles-based terrorist cell created in response to the failure of the cell in Season One. Though American Terror was no less thoughtful and compelling than its first season, it did leave one wondering how sustainable the series was long-term—whether, like 24, it would have nowhere else to go but toward increasingly extravagant terrorist scenarios and/or over-the-top dangers for its hero.

But just as Kiefer Sutherland provided an emotional bedrock for 24 as the action around him continually threatened to collapse into ludicrousness, perhaps Sleeper Cell would have survived if Michael Ealy remained its star. Previously seen only in supporting parts in films like Barbershop and 2 Fast 2 Furious, Reiff and Voris’ series was Ealy’s first major lead role, and he brings to Darwyn a startlingly sustained intensity of anguished expression, with palpable trauma vividly ingrained in his slouching posture, tortured gestures, whispery voice and piercing eyes. Hawkins—who plays Eric Carter, the new protagonist of 24: Legacy, and like Darwyn a former U.S. Army Ranger—can’t help but seem a bit bland and lightweight compared to Ealy, whose quiet angst offered a fascinating contrast to Oded Fehr’s blazing confidence as Farik. There are many topical reasons to rediscover Sleeper Cell—chief among them, the potential to witness a post-9/11 American TV series that took the Islamic faith as seriously as it did the moral ambivalences in fighting terrorism on U.S. soil. But if nothing else, Reiff and Voris’ series is worth seeing for Ealy, who, as Darwyn, delivers one of the most unheralded performances on television in recent memory.

Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.