Long after the terrorist attacks on America, TV and film producers only tiptoed around certain hot-button issues, avoiding anything close to realism.
Now, four-plus years after 9/11, Showtime is breaking through full-bore with “Sleeper Cell” — a drama series about a group of Islamic extremists loose in Los Angeles.
When TV finally started to focus on domestic terrorism and Islamic extremism, it did so only “in a very cartoony, unrealistic way,” says Ethan Reiff, co-executive producer of “Sleeper Cell.” He and his producing partner, Cyrus Voris, decided to write their own series.
“Sleeper Cell,” debuting Sunday at 10 p.m., attempts to look not only at the war against radical Islamic forces, says Reiff, but the war within the Muslim religion, too.
The main characters are Farik (played by Oded Fehr), a terrorist cell leader, and Darwyn (Michael Ealy), a black Muslim working as an undercover agent hoping to foil the band’s plans. The Muslim radicals try to blend into everyday life, holding down jobs, bowling, attending family gatherings with the kids and searching for potential terror targets — places like Disneyland, Los Angeles International Airport and the Rose Bowl.
“Islam was popularized in the United States by African Americans,” says Voris. “We felt it was really important to acknowledge that in terms of our hero. That dichotomy between this moderate, peace-loving Islamic and the violent radicalism was something we really had to deal with in this show.”
A difficult role for FehrEaly, a Southern Baptist, says he’s in awe of playing the undercover Darwyn, a character “so disciplined” in his faith. But Fehr, as Farik, finds it difficult to play his role.
“I don’t like him, but I like the opportunity of trying to play him,” says the Israeli-born Fehr, who is Jewish. “Yesterday we shot a scene where he’s talking about what he believes is the reason why he does what he does and why Americans need to pay. It’s challenging to say those things I totally don’t believe in and make them believable.”
That challenge, along with the show’s relentless realism, has led to some strange moments on set.
A few months back, cameras rolled for a brutal scene with the terrorists holed up in a dusty downtown warehouse, a gun at a hostage’s head. Tension mounted as Farik and Darwyn argued his fate.
“He’s not a threat to us anymore” says Darwyn. “We can just tie him up again.”
“No. We’re too close. We can’t risk anything going wrong,” Farik retorts.
When the scene ends, Ealy playfully tosses his unloaded AK-47 assault rifle to Fehr, who, mimicking a rock star, sings into the barrel. Such craziness, he says later, is a necessary safety valve.
“The scenes are so raw, emotionally intense,” he says, “we’ve gotta keep it light whenever we can.”
The seriousness of the subject matter makes that levity rare, though.
“This is the first show that even acknowledges the divergent view of these extremists versus the mainstream religion of a billion people,” says “Sleeper Cell’s’ only practicing Muslim writer, Kamran Pasha. “The entire intention of ‘Sleeper Cell’ is to show how Darwyn is motivated by both patriotism and faith. That intrigued me.”
Will viewers embrace ‘Sleeper Cell’But are viewers ready for this kind of ripped-from-the-headlines entertainment in prime-time?
FX attempted to take on such heady realism with Steven Bochco’s “Over There.” But the just-canceled Iraq war drama turned off audiences with its graphic violence and harsh combat scenes.
“America is very touchy right now,” says FX president John Landgraff. “There’s always a danger when you do something that’s specific to contemporary realities and contemporary anxiety. You have to have truly compelling stories and characters — some things that make it entertainment for people.”
“Look, we’re all for controversy and doing things that make people feel uncomfortable; it’s a part of who we are,” explains Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment for Showtime.
“You can be really entertaining with a show like ‘Desperate Housewives,’ which is just fun, or you can be entertaining and be really thought-provoking and challenging,” he continues. “This show isn’t meant to be a guilty pleasure. There’s a little bit of humor, but it’s meant to draw you in and think about the world we live in.”
Toward that end, the show employs a number of technical advisers, including FBI agents familiar with counterterrorism tactics as well as biological and chemical weapons.
Shooting on location in Los Angeles has certainly given those on the set reasons to ponder.
“The terrifying aspect of this show shooting in Los Angeles is that I live here,” says Ealy. “In one episode we go to LAX. I fly out of LAX all the time.”