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TELEVISION REVIEW

Terrorists among us, all too real

While America fights overseas, TV has spent the post-9/11 years focusing on the enemies among us.

You can see the domestic rusting-from-within expressed as a supernatural metaphor on horror series such as ''Invasion" and ''Surface," as evil infiltrates the United States through an essential resource: water. And you can see it more directly as terrorism drama on ''24" and, now, Showtime's ''Sleeper Cell," which gives us radical fundamentalists who shop at Wal-Mart, have birthday parties in the park, and quote A Tribe Called Quest. On 9/11, we learned that the nation isn't impervious to attack, and TV's drama-makers don't want us to forget it.

''Sleeper Cell," which premieres Sunday night at 10, is an eerie -- and excellent -- new series that makes ''24" look more than ever like a broadly drawn comic strip. It's a tight thriller whose Muslim terrorists are more realistically human than TV's more familiar Arab stereotypes, and, therefore, a whole lot scarier. We can't easily dismiss them as nefarious cardboard figures with thick accents; they're ordinary, young, fickle, and, in the case of one member of the show's LA cell, a blond, white, bowling-alley manager whose parents are Berkeley professors. Played by Blake Shields from ''Carnivale," he is a frat boy gone bad, looking like an elongated Andy Richter. And cellmate Christian (Alex Nesic) is a French skinhead.

It would have been easier for the creators of ''Sleeper Cell," Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff, to make their homeland villains less believable -- easier for viewers that is. Instead, ''Sleeper Cell" tries to challenge us with the deceptiveness of the bad guys' appearances while unfolding a well-done piece of genre suspense. The show's terrorists have more depth and variety than any others on TV, except, perhaps, Shohreh Aghdashloo as Dina Araz on ''24." Each of the characters has his own motives for wanting to murder ''the infidels" and his own anger to express inappropriately, which become more obvious the longer we're with him. Gradually, it's clear how very much their aggression is about psychological damage and how little it is about the Koran.

The leader of the cell (there are about a half-dozen members) is Farik (Oded Fehr), a severe Saudi national whose efficiency and foresight are terrifying. He runs a tight ship, and at one point he presides over the gruesome elimination of a member who inadvertently leaked information. The murder scene has a distinctly ''Sopranos"-like tone, with Farik fiercely testing his crew's loyalty.

Farik's cover is heavily ironic: He's passing as an easygoing Jewish executive in the security industry, coaching his kids' baseball games wearing a T-shirt that reads, ''Sinai Maccabees." But he's pathologically driven, using anthrax, assassination, and other kinds of violence in his plots. Lest we try to explain him as a religious fanatic, the show makes it clear that his cell's funding source is based on activities that are against Islam, including gambling. Fehr is chillingly good in the role of a sleek mass murderer.

But the central figure on ''Sleeper Cell" is the cell's newest member, Darwyn al-Sayeed, played by Michael Ealy. [Spoiler alert: It's next to impossible to talk about ''Sleeper Cell" without revealing a central plot twist from the first episode; please stop reading here if you don't want to know.] What we discover is that Darwyn is actually an undercover FBI agent who reports Farik's plans to his FBI handler, Ray (James LeGros). Darwyn is really a Muslim, but he makes it clear to Ray that ''these guys have nothing to do with my faith." Farik's mission forces Darwyn into behavior abhorrent to him both as a human being and as a Muslim, but he rationalizes it, determined to serve a greater good.

That may sound like a politically correct contrivance, to give us a good Muslim amid bad ones, to avoid criticism and to teach viewers. And maybe it is. But it also adds solid dramatic tension to the show, in terms of Darwyn's inner struggles. Ealy makes those battles of self crystal clear and sympathetic. He is a knockout in the role, with watchful blue eyes that quietly betray morality and fear. Ealy appeared in theaters in ''Barbershop" and then on TV earlier this year as Tea Cake in ''Their Eyes Were Watching God." But this show should be his breakout vehicle, if it catches on.

And it should catch on, unless Showtime's complicated scheduling for the 10-part series turns off potential viewers. The plan is to air new episodes on Sunday through Wednesday nights at 10 next week and the following week, with a two-hour finale on Dec. 18. Also, the channel will reair episodes on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Yes, many of us are engaging in ''power viewing," watching entire seasons of shows on DVD over a single weekend. But we do that kind of demanding viewing on our own schedules, not Showtime's. Let's hope ''Sleeper Cell" can overcome the condensed time scheme and bring viewers to the needy cable channel next week, rather than to the DVD store in a few months.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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