Showtime's 'Sleeper Cell': Shut It Down

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006

CBS honcho Les Moonves reportedly wants more sizzle from sister company Showtime, a pay-cable channel that runs a poor second to that house o' hits, HBO. So it is that Showtime has in recent months introduced series about pot growers, terrorists, a society of dead people and a supposedly lovable serial killer.

In other words, fun for the whole family!

"Sleeper Cell: American Terror," a key component in Showtime's new nastiness, returns to the network tomorrow night with a fresh array of murder, mayhem, toilet-cleaning and throat-slitting, the story of a small band of terrorists and the American agent who has managed to infiltrate it.

It's unlikely the show will have you on the edge of your seat, but it might have you crawling on the floor -- searching for the channel-changer and its escape to viewing alternatives.

Part 1 of the new batch of "Sleeper Cells" opens with a bit of visual trickery that also includes cinematic homage. We hear the Arabic call to prayer as the camera pans down a minaret that stands against the sky -- very similar, if pointlessly so, to one of the first shots in the movie classic "Casablanca." Then we suddenly find ourselves romping on the beach at the Hotel del Coronado, the famed San Diego landmark that was prominently featured in the legendary comedy "Some Like It Hot."

In "Sleeper Cell," however, San Diego is supposed to be San Diego and not Miami Beach, the role it played in Billy Wilder's brilliant film.

We mention these minor details mainly to delay considering "Sleeper Cell" itself, because a dreary thing it is, and depressing, too. It's not in the best of taste to use terrorism, the fears it inspires, and references to the reprehensible attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the stuff of cheap exploitation. The ploy's the thing, and an ugly thing, too.

It is even suggested by one character -- admittedly someone who's supposed to be an imbecile -- that the atrocity of 9/11 was perpetrated by American forces to make Islamic extremists look bad. "Uncle Sam was behind the whole thing," it is recklessly alleged.

Allegedly in the interest of fairness, or something, the cast of characters includes U.S. military men who abuse suspected captured terrorists -- including one man who is questioned, and questioned, and questioned in a barren room, the monotony broken when the interrogator gives the suspect a whack that sends him sprawling to the floor. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are conspicuously mentioned as symbols of American culpability.

It's all distasteful -- sensationalistic in a drab and flabby way. "Sometimes failure is a great motivator," one agent philosophizes to another. Perhaps, but sometimes failure is just a great failur-ator. "Sleeper Cell" is certainly no success.

Sleeper Cell (one hour) airs tomorrow night at 9 on Showtime.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company