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Showtime's 'Sleeper Cell' brings terrorism home

HOLLYWOOD -- When they heard about the London terrorist bombings, the cast and crew of Showtime's new series ''Sleeper Cell" were saddened, but hardly surprised. Every work day, they submerge themselves in the imagined thoughts and actions of Islamic extremists living and plotting destruction in a Western city -- specifically, Los Angeles.

The deadly July 7 bombings and the subsequent incidents serve as ''a reminder that, yes, we're doing an entertaining television show, but we're doing a show about something that is real," said Cyrus Voris, who along with Ethan Reiff executive produces the show, which is due in December.

Just as the London bombings raised the specter of domestic terrorists, ''Sleeper Cell" zeroes in on mostly American and European Muslim extremists: a wealthy blond ex-student from the University of California at Berkeley, a former skinhead from France, a Bosnian Muslim whose family was murdered -- and a practicing black Muslim secretly dedicated to thwarting their plans as an undercover agent for the FBI.

They pass time at children's birthday parties in local parks, hold down jobs, go bowling, and drive the freeways practicing the routes to possible targets, including Los Angeles International Airport, the Rose Bowl, and the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

The events in London also reinforce ''an inescapable fact of life" these days that has yet to be realistically reflected in popular culture, Reiff said.

Reiff and Voris, known more for their horror and martial arts projects (''Brimstone," ''Bulletproof Monk"), said that after 9/11 a realistic treatment of a sleeper cell was too raw for the audience and thus too risky for commercial networks in the United States. While the English produced shows that grappled with the post-9/11 world, like ''The Hamburg Cell" and ''Dirty War," American dramatists treated terrorists in a ''pre-9/11 kind of way," Voris said. ''Escapist, cartoony, generic Eurotrash terrorists from unnamed evil countries. It infuriated us."

''Sleeper Cell" was written with a multitude of technical advisers, including Islamic and Arabic specialists, experts in counterterrorism and biological and chemical weapons, and FBI employees. Michael Ealy (''Barbershop") stars as Darwyn, the undercover FBI agent posing as a cell member. Oded Fehr (''Deuce Bigelow") plays the sophisticated but brutal Arab extremist who poses as a devout member of a Jewish temple while directing the cell's operations.

On a recent day, the cast and crew were taping one of the last of 10 episodes in a central Los Angeles warehouse that serves as the fictional cell's headquarters. Set pieces had been built to represent a weapons locker (with AK47s), and a rubber tire and barbed wire training ground. On an electrical switch box, someone had pasted a sticker: ''Allah is always greater than our needs."

Clearly, ''Sleeper Cell" is not just another TV show.

The several practicing Muslims who work on or consult on ''Sleeper Cell" said they are proud and grateful to contribute to the first television show to present a Muslim as a hero and to draw detailed distinctions between Muslim extremists and mainstream Islam.

''It's the kind of show I dreamed about being involved in. I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime," said one member of the writing team, Kamran Pasha, a Pakistani-born Muslim and former journalist with a law degree and MBA.

''There are very few Muslims in Hollywood," he said. ''They can complain all they want about how Hollywood portrays them. The fact is, if you're not in the industry, no one will portray their point of view."

One episode dramatizes Americans' ignorance, when Darwyn confronts punks who attack a turbaned Sikh and informs them that Sikhs are not Muslims. Another portrays a Yemeni Islamic scholar debating Al Qaeda sympathizers to show them how they have distorted the teachings of the Koran.

The creators said ''Sleeper Cell" was not politically motivated, although they are already defending the show from critics on the left and right. Forming their opinions from news articles, bloggers on, a conservative website, complained that ''Sleeper Cell" would surely be tainted by typical Hollywood political correctness, noting that most of the bad guys are not Arabs.

Reiff wrote back: ''The recruitment and training of guys like that" -- meaning non-Arabs -- ''happens to be quite high on our enemy's 'to do' list" because they can escape profiling. He cited the arrests of John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla, and Richard Reid.

''If you don't want to see Islamist terrorists portrayed as they really are -- complete with their rabid anti-Semitism, honor killings, use of Quranic quotations to promote and endorse heinous acts of violence (such as stoning their enemies to death) -- then by all means, do not watch this show," he wrote.

Voris said putting the show together has been an educational process. The writing room is full of impassioned political debate, and the divergent views eventually find their way into the scripts and story lines along with references to Al Qaeda, Guantanamo Bay, and Britney Spears.

Indeed, the scripts are so realistic that some said they fear either being personally identified with terrorists, being seen as an enemy of the terrorists, or having to carry the weight of an entire Muslim community tired of being mistaken for extremists.

After the pilot was picked up, Ealy said, he started feeling pressure when he learned he was the pioneering fictional representative of mainstream Muslims in the United States.

Following a recent panel at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., Ealy was approached by a man who said he was a writer, but a ''Muslim first." After praising the pilot, the writer told him, ''I'll be watching you," said Ealy, who appreciates what he has learned about Islam but cleaves to his Southern Baptist roots.

Others say even performing or watching the show is frightening.

''It's almost like I want to take a shower afterwards," Fehr said. ''My wife loves me to death. She can't watch it."

The Israeli-born Fehr, who is Jewish and served in the Israeli army, said he worried about taking on the character of the brutal Farik but was encouraged by his brother in Israel, who reminded him it was challenging -- and fictional -- work.

On the other hand, director Ziad Doueiri (''Lila Says"), a Lebanese-born nonpracticing Muslim, said he is sure some Muslims will criticize him for being involved in just one episode of ''Sleeper Cell."

''The extremists always say either you're 100 percent for us or 100 percent against us. . . . I got a call from a friend in Lebanon who said, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' "

Voris acknowledged that the show could serve to encourage paranoia as it seeks to educate and entertain. ''Simultaneously, it's also making you look clearly at these things. Seeing something portrayed in pop culture makes it easier to deal with," he said. ''We're showing you that if someone is planning [a terrorist attack], the FBI has a guy out there to stop it."

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