An eye for an eye, for ratings.

Last weekend I was feeling kind of crappy and decided I’d curl up on the couch and watch some stupid TV. The problem with this plan, of course, was that we don’t have cable, a tivo, or any of the other technologies that allow some sort of control over the stupidness of the available television. We have an HD tuner, which gets us all the networks, but seriously Sunday afternoon isn’t exactly the best time to curl up and watch network TV. My intent was to make use of Netflix streaming to watch copious amounts of Law and Order but once I actually got the computer attached to the TV working (with its finicky power supply and wireless keyboard from hell) I found I was no longer in an L&O mood. As I was flipping through what netflix has available I noticed that they had Sleeper Cell.

When the series first came out there were a couple of billboards for the show I drove past regularly. I can’t find a picture of the cast for the first season all together, but imagine if you will a billboard with a black guy, a Saudi, a french man, a bosnian, and a blond white boy from Berkeley with the tagline “Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists.” With that as my only previous information about the show I was pretty much expecting an utterly offensive train wreck. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for highlighting the fact that not all arabs are terrorists and not all terrorists are arabs but the advertising made Sleeper Cell look like fear mongering of the “oh my god fear everybody” variety, which doesn’t exactly strike me as an improvement. So I opened a bottle of wine and settled in to see how bad it really was.

I’ve been considering writing about it all week but I figured I’d watch both seasons to see how it all played out. I watched the last episode yesterday (and I’ll note that really I probably would have been happier just leaving things as they were at the end of the second to last episode). All in all I will say that it’s decent television as such things go and it’s certainly a better take on the war on terror than I feared it would be but in the end I still felt that it raised too few questions about our country’s anti-terrorist actions. The series follows Darwyn, a black muslim undercover FBI agent, as he infiltrates a terrorist cell. One thing the show does very well is portray Darwyns conviction that the actions of terrorists are not the actions of people true to the muslim faith. The show seems to do a good job of using quotation from the Koran to really underscore the message that not all muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. When developing the characters’ histories some of the history behind the development of Al-Qaeda comes out, at least between the lines. I would have liked, though, to see more about Farik’s death sentence in Saudi Arabia since it might have helped underscore the fact that western governments aren’t the only ones concerned about terrorism and extremists.

My major beef with the show, though, is the way that American policies and actions are mostly left unquestioned. Sure there’s a little comedy having to do with an LAPD detective being unwilling to drop a case despite having been told to do so by the FBI. Sure there are a few cases where FBI incompetence gets people killed (including one guy who had essentially been set up by the FBI anyway). Yes, Darwyn recognizes that the Afghani kid who wasn’t involved with terrorists until after he was released from Gitmo was an instance where “we fucked up” but how can you really be an FBI undercover agent with the kind of deep morality that we’re supposed to believe this character has and not be mad as hell about a kid being taken into custody (and probably tortured) because some village leader wanted the bounty money for turning in terrorists? That’s more than “we fucked up.” That’s “the whole system is based on repeating this fuck-up unquestioningly.” Meanwhile later we see Farik in custody and while the water boarding isn’t show on screen it’s mentioned off-handedly in one of the interrogation scenes. After that he’s extradited to Saudi Arabia so that he can be tortured by a Saudi Arabian torture expert rather than the U.S. marine (who’s there and looking on).

All in all I was happy that the show portrayed the terrorists as three dimensional characters. And I’ll admit it did manage to not glorify the war on terror as much as I feared it would. But it still failed to ask the important questions. It failed to question the U.S. government’s methods and it failed to question whether a war on terror even makes sense in the first place (hint, my answer to that question is two letters and starts with an n).

And the last episode saddened me a great deal because it portrayed Darwyn giving in to an urge for revenge. The argument for revenge is, in my view, an easy one and one we are fed continuously. Obviously “turn the other cheek” isn’t always an answer but I really think sometimes we have to ask ourself whether revenge actually accomplishes anything. In this case I was saddened to see a character that had been buoyed throughout the show by his deep faith–which encompassed many shades of grey–fall back into the easy black and white of the an eye for an eye revenge mentality.

I suppose there’s not much point to mourning the simplicity of messages coming from TV. But ultimately when I live in a country where people legitimately believed that invading Iraq was a reasonable response to the September 11th attacks, I can’t help but think that more simplistic messages aren’t a good thing.

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