TV Reviews: 'Sleeper Cell' is an eye-opening look at war on terror

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If Showtime's first season of "Sleeper Cell" had one failing when it aired last December, it was the finale. To that point, "Cell" was a far more realistic look at the inner workings of a terrorist group on American soil than anything viewers have seen on "24."

But that last hour, though not terrible, was at least more conventional than the rest of the series as FBI undercover agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) leapt into action to stop the terrorists from executing their planned bombing of a ballpark.

Through the first six hours made available for review, this year's follow-up, "Sleeper Cell: American Terror" (9 p.m. Sunday and running eight consecutive nights through Dec. 17), is another A+ production that conjures chills as a new terror cell, calmly and coolly plans for attack. It shows not only the preparations, but also their motivations.

Humanizing terrorists won't sit well with unthinking viewers, but it does paint a more realistic picture than the twirling mustache villains on "24."

This season American Muslim FBI agent Darwyn infiltrates a terror cell that includes a Latino gang member (Kevin Alejandro), a Dutch nanny with a dark past (Thekla Reuten) and a Shiite-hating, Iraqi ex-patriot (Omid Abtahi, "Over There").

Darwyn's girlfriend, Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller), is back, hoping Darwyn will take a teaching position, but before he can, he becomes embroiled in another undercover assignment with a new, inexperienced FBI case handler (Jay R. Ferguson).

Last year's captured cell leader, Faris Al-Farik (Oded Fehr), does not cooperate with American interrogators, and the only other surviving member of the original sleeper cell, Ilija Korjenic (Henri Lubatti), escapes and makes his way back to Europe.

Even in its first hour, "Sleeper Cell" offers disturbing glimpses at the reality of the war on terror, made more palpable when it hits home, claiming the lives of characters that viewers have grown attached to.

Each episode includes one real shocking plot twist, but this second "Sleeper Cell" also takes time to develop the characters, both new and old. Viewers learn much more about Darwyn's background through his relationship with his father (Charles S. Dutton) and the new installment also gives glimpses at Farik's life in Saudi Arabia.

Another edge-of-your-seat thriller, "Sleeper Cell: American Terror" puts its characters in context. They may commit despicable, heinous acts, but they're still human. "Sleeper Cell" recognizes that the world is far more gray than it is black and white.

'Tsunami, The Aftermath'

A fictional account of what happened after a December 2004 tsunami swamped Thailand and neighboring countries, this HBO mini-series is a well-acted, well-intentioned tragedy in two distinct parts.

Night one, airing at 8 p.m. Sunday, is a high-gloss disaster flick, albeit a much better one that what broadcast networks have put on in recent years. Night two, airing at 8 p.m. Dec. 17, is closer to a political polemic with greater attention to character development.

Clocking in at a little more than three hours (about 90 minutes each week), this HBO-BBC co-production follows two vacationing families at a Thailand resort who get separated when a wall of water crashes down on their vacation paradise.

Ian Carter (stand out actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Serenity") grabs his young daughter and runs when the waves hit. His wife, Susie (Sophie Okonedo), is out at sea scuba-diving as the tsunami comes to shore and it somehow misses her entirely. Also on the scuba trip are Kim Peabody (Gina McKee, "The Forsyte Saga") and her youngest son, while her husband and teen son are swamped on land.

Attempts by the family members to re-connect with their missing loved ones are painful to watch. But "Tsunami" is not just about the vacationers. The film also follows a Thai boy whose entire village is lost.

In the aftermath, "Tsunami" tracks the work of a British bureaucrat, an aid worker and a journalist who investigates what could have been done to give people better warning.

Written by Abi Morgan and directed by Bharat Nalluri ("Hustle"), "Tsunami" creates a sense of dread as the killer waves approach shore. The impact is filmed in tight, close-up, jittery style, creating, perhaps, a more effective sense of confusion than a big-budget special effects extravaganza ever could.

But the film feels like it drags, especially in night one ("Tsunami" is not a pulse pounder like "Sleeper Cell," nor does it contain characters with the richness of those in "Sleeper Cell"). There's only so much sadness and vain searching for loved ones that a viewer can take. Night two offers some relief, concentrating instead on the political realities of storm preparedness and a shady hotel chain deals to rebuild on land that belonged to a small village before the storm.

The second part of the miniseries also contains a greater emphasis on characters. Certainly a discussion of religious faith would not be something a broadcast network miniseries would spend much time on.

"Hope: It's all I've got, believing in something that can't be proven but you're willing to trust is there," says aid worker Kathy Graham (Toni Collette). "It's what keeps me safe at night."

"Tsunami" won't go down in TV history as one of the best miniseries ever, but it's certainly better than many.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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