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'Sleeper' is shrewd psychological terror

One reason "24" is so popular is its unrealism, as the bad guys shape-shift among nationalities and the FBI surveillance experts seem to have ESP. The Fox drama deploys guns, bombs, blood, sweat, torture, and grim lighting, and yet the action isn't truly scary so much as thrilling, like a car chase.

Showtime's "Sleeper Cell," on the other hand, is truly scary. And that may be why the gripping terrorism series hasn't become the TV phenomenon it ought to be. Back for an eight-episode second season thanks to a ratings-blind move by Showtime, the drama is constructed out of the evil specifics of extremism that fuel American nightmares. It relies on the psychology of militant jihadists, and not on free-floating adrenaline, for its vision of global clash. Creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris don't rehash the easily-dismissed stereotypes of Arab terrorists; they give us men and women who are hard to shake, driven fanatics who are nonetheless careful and shrewd.

The new season, called "Sleeper Cell: American Terror," picks up tomorrow at 9 p.m. where it left off last year, after undercover agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) helped to prevent an attack at Dodger Stadium. But this season stands on its own, as the weary Darwyn is seduced by the FBI into infiltrating another cell involved in an international dirty bomb plot.

A devout Muslim, Darwyn despises the thugs who call themselves holy warriors, and that motivates him to deal with irritating FBI protocols and his new FBI handler, played as a condescending Bush-era bureaucrat by Jay R. Ferguson. Darwyn's peaceful take on the Koran may be the creative team's attempt at balance, to show a "good" Muslim alongside the "bad" ones, but thanks to Ealy's charismatic performance it never comes off as a token gesture.

The bulk of the series follows Darwyn and his descent into -- and ascent within -- the newly formed cell, which includes a Latino gang member who found Islam in prison, a Dutch convert who was once a call girl, and a British jihadist originally from Iraq. In one of the show's few unlikely twists, Darwyn's single-mom girlfriend, Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller ), also slowly gets sucked into doing FBI work, despite Darwyn's efforts to keep her apart. And we meet Darwyn's estranged father, played by Charles S. Dutton.

But season two also follows two of the season-one cell members in dynamic subplots that eventually converge. With these two men, Reiff and Voris best show their deep curiosity about people who are willing to trade their own and others' lives for a cause. Oded Fehr is back as former cell leader Faris al Farik , bitter over his failure in Los Angeles and now in an American prison undergoing constant torture. His face-off with his American captors, in which they push their interrogations to the moral edge and then some, is as much a debate of ideas as it is an excruciating physical exercise.

Meanwhile, former cell member Ilija Korjenic (Henri Lubatti ), whose family was murdered by Orthodox Serbs during the break-up of Yugoslavia, is working his way out of the United States with his nai ve girlfriend and dyed blond hair . He is a monster -- or is he? Each Muslim on this show -- even the militants -- has developed his or her own interpretation of the religion, as well as of its sexual restrictions. Ilija's interpretation is muddy and complex.

The action is intense in "Sleeper Cell," and each episode includes at least one stunning moment of violence or betrayal. But character depth isn't sacrificed to keep the pace moving, and there are valuable calms between the storms. The series makes for perfect power-watching sessions, which may be why Showtime is running a new episode every night from tomorrow through Dec. 17. Also, the entire season will be available through On Demand beginning tomorrow . And truly, you just might not have the patience to wait 24 hours to see the next chapter of this powerful story.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit

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