Must-Scare TV

Photo by Randy TepperCan a dramatic series be considered realistic if it traffics in a scenario that for average citizens dwells primarily in their nightmares? That’s the minefield that Showtime’s 10-part series Sleeper Cell enters, as it lathers up a from-the-inside story of a clandestine band of terrorists operating in Los Angeles. The events of 9/11 introduced the narrative of enemies among us with rattling, mind-searing force, but despite the occasional news item about a snake in our back yard — for example, Southern California’s son of a hippie goat farmer turned U.S.-hating Muslim, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, who targeted Los Angeles in a threat videotaped this year — the perceived reality of the war on terror has morphed into an overseas soldier’s saga: a tragedy of grieving parents, inept nation-building and political grandstanding. As long as it’s safe to go to the mall, Islamic extremists are still, for Americans, a foreign, “other” concern.At its fear-mongering best, then, Sleeper Cell bracingly reminds us of what the fallout from 9/11 was supposed to be about: securing the homeland. The series’ fundamentalist evildoers are outwardly normal dudes smoothly woven into society: a high school science teacher (Henri Lubatti), a womanizing tour guide (Alex Nesic), a neurotic husband/father (Grant Heslov), a clean-cut bowling-alley manager (Blake Shields) and their ringleader, Farik, a stylishly dressed security company executive passing as a Jew (Oded Fehr). And yet these are bad, bad guys, who by the end of the first episode have discussed the mass casualty feasibility of numerous Los Angeles locations — LAX, the Rose Bowl, UCLA — and stoned to death one of their group for being an unwitting traitor. But they will have also let in a real traitor, an undercover FBI agent (Michael Ealy) posing as a radicalized ex-con. And there’s one thing new recruit Darwyn doesn’t have to fake: He’s a Muslim. But as Darwyn sternly reminds his Fed handler (James LeGros), “These guys have nothing to do with my faith.”“Sleeper Cell” wears its Muslim hero like a good-intention badge of honor, a way to counter the ill effects of Hollywood once again showcasing a group of Koran followers as infidel-obsessed fanatics, and it helps in setting the show apart from the sporadically jingoistic action of 24. In fact, at times it plays like a hybrid of the ticking-bomb thrills from that Fox network staple and the moral thorniness that undergirds HBO’s excellent crime series The Wire. Ealy smartly turns Darwyn’s conflicted emotions as a faith-based double agent into a form of narrative suspense: You watch with fear that his barely concealed disgust toward his “cell”-mates — a kind of queasy stiffening that takes over the actor’s frame — will be more of a cover-blowing tip-off than a careless slip of the tongue. Likewise, Fehr’s outward calm as Farik casts a creeping sense of anxiety over the show. He’s infinitely less scary in the moments when he actually pulls a gun or commits an act of violence.But there’s another key distinction the series makes about its terrorists: They’re not all Arabs. Fehr’s character may be Middle Eastern (while the actor is actually Jewish), and Heslov is playing an Egyptian, but the tour guide is a French ex-skinhead, the teacher is a Bosnian who witnessed his family slaughtered by Orthodox Serbs, and the blond bowling-alley manager is the alienated son of self-centered lefty Berkeley professors. While this gang may smack of variety-pak dramatic contrivance, at least show creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris want to make it clear that fundamentalism’s special wickedness is that it blossoms most easily in those weakened by hatred of others.There are also educational nuggets tossed in as well, as when Darwyn angrily corrects a subway gang’s vicious “Osama” taunts to a white-sheeted passenger by pointing out that the man is a Sikh: “Sikhs and Muslims are like the Crips and the Bloods, they fuckin’ hate each other!” It’s not the smoothest dialogue — suddenly the show sounded like a foul-mouthed “The More You Know” PSA. Make no mistake, however: Sleeper Cell wants to quicken your heart rate with a minimum of slickness and a maximum of tension.Subsequent episodes involve an anthrax plot, an assassination attempt, the theft of an industrial-strength pesticide, some shocking deaths and, of course, the evolving details of the group’s grand scheme. Along the way it takes grim, edgy detours into the nature of soul-saving, introducing a bio-chem student reluctantly pulled into Farik’s web, a bitter Afghan teenager smuggled through Mexico who spurs Darwyn to surreptitiously expose him to Islam’s peace-loving tenets, and an American-Muslim who trains future Iraqi insurgents but balks at killing innocents at home. These aren’t soft-centered entreaties to “understand” terrorists — as the show was already accused of doing when little was known about it — but stories that attempt to get at the circumstances that turn ordinary people into holy warriors. If the show has a built-in failing, it’s the sense that we’re not getting the full picture from the law enforcement side of what it would be like to run an operative as deeply infiltrated as Darwyn, but that might be my bias toward the equitable exploration of cops and criminals on The Wire. Sleeper Cell is a valiant stab at making brutally clear what one side of the war on terror is doing, and on those terms, it’s jitters-causing enough. Showtime has been doing its own sinister recruitment of sorts, corralling 13 horror filmmakers — mostly veterans like John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Larry Cohen and Tobe Hooper — to make one-hour original films for the Friday-night anthology series Masters of Horror. What surely enticed this bunch was the promise of final cut and a fast-and-cheap shooting schedule that probably made them feel like low-budget scaremeisters again. The hope was that the directors’ twisted imaginations would soar. Six weeks in it’s been a mixed bag — Hooper’s stank, and Don Coscarelli’s was amusing if not exactly scary — but this Friday the series unveils a real doozy: Joe Dante’s wry and uncompromising zombie satire Homecoming. For those of you who thought that the election of Nov. 3, 2004, was a nightmare come true, who think Fahrenheit 9/11 belongs next to Invasion of the Body Snatchers at your video store, and who thought Rep. Jean Schmidt’s head would start rotating when she blasted John Murtha recently on the House floor, then this is your movie. Set during a very familiar-looking presidential campaign, complete with a polarizing Republican incumbent, a phony war and smear-crazy TV pundits, it poses the question: What if our soldiers came back from the dead, and instead of wanting to eat us, just wanted to vote in the next election? As the president’s callous campaign manager quips to his political consultant (Jon Tenney) about their reason for returning: “It couldn’t be the disability benefits.” Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm, adapting Dale Bailey’s short story “Death & Suffrage,” land plenty of political punches as the prospect of fighting men coming home stirs conservative blowhards such as a Pat Robertson–like commentator to declare the undead combatants — corpse rot, groans and all — a gift from God. But when it becomes obvious that the soldiers’ intention is to unseat their commander-in-chief, the televangelist hilariously changes his tune: “It’s as if the bowels in hell had opened and disgorged these demons in our midst.” I know I’ve heard Ann Coulter describe liberals that way on Fox.The right’s blitzkrieging blond will surely be up in arms over the liberal slant of Homecoming, and mainly because it features a power-mad S&M-loving hate spewer that’s clearly a savage parody of her. And there’s no reason political junkies of any shade shouldn’t laugh, because the parallels to and barely concealed jabs at the current climate of political opportunism — Bush-related or not — are in many ways more fun than a Michael Moore harangue. But the clincher is that Dante also manages a deft tonal shift to stark tragedy, when we learn the secret behind the Vietnam-era death of Tenney’s brother, and perhaps a clue about why all too often politics is an amnesiacs’ parade. It’s a moment that gives Tenney’s motivation to do right by the dead soldiers a genuinely horrifying gravity, and it prevents Homecoming from being simply a long Daily Show sketch, bestowing it with the kind of moral heft that all true horror stories brandish. SLEEPER CELL | Showtime | Sundays through Wednesdays, 10 p.m., Dec. 4 through Dec. 14, with 2-hour finale Sunday, Dec. 18, 8 p.m. MASTERS OF HORROR: HOMECOMING | Showtime | Friday, Dec. 2 , 10 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 3, 10:30 p.m.


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