An enemy held closer

Times Staff Writer

ON a hilly ranch in Palmdale, a clearing, dotted with dusty jeeps and Yemeni tents, was swarming with actors in Middle Eastern and paramilitary garb. The director, camera crew and pyrotechnics advisors stood by, earplugs in place. If all went well that morning, the terrorist camp would blow up in a colorful explosion, ashes and characters would fall, and then they could move on to the next scene -- and wrap up the second year of Showtime's "Sleeper Cell."

"This season was insanely ambitious for a TV show," said executive producer Cyrus Voris, standing several yards from the set. This season (the eight episodes will air on consecutive nights beginning Sunday on Showtime) picks up where the last left off, with the terrorists parting ways after a thwarted attack on Dodger Stadium. After successfully infiltrating the cell, the undercover FBI agent Darwyn managed to both dismantle the attack and keep his cover.

The local cell's target remains Los Angeles, said executive producer Ethan Reiff, who spoke, like his partner, in between explosions. "You can't help it, it's on top of the list," Reiff said. "That's what the terrorists do. They keep coming back until they get it."

But in Season 2, the action revolves more closely around the war in Iraq and has spread to various places around the world, following separate story lines for the captured Farik (Oded Fehr), the escapee Ilija (Henri Lubatti) and Darwyn (Michael Ealy). Other locales in the Los Angeles area have served as sites in Germany, London, Toronto, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Israel, among others.

Based in the ongoing reality of terrorism, the show has run an uneven parallel course between predicting and reflecting world events.

"The first season, there was interest from Showtime in incorporating a female terrorist into the cell," Reiff said, giving an example. "We had a problem with that. Then between the first season and the second season there was a real-life Belgian female convert [linked to a European terrorist cell] who went to Iraq and blew herself up."

"Now that we could point to a real-world paradigm, it gave us dramatic license to do something," Voris added. This season, Darwyn forms a new cell in Southern California that includes Mina, a European terrorist played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, and a Jose Padilla type, an ex-gang member converted to Islam.

Reiff and Voris said they get their ideas from small items tucked in the back of newspapers and from conversations with government agents, who initially declined to advise on the scripts. After the first season, they said they are not only getting their calls returned from the agents, sometimes the agents are calling them. "We portrayed them as they are, which is: They try hard, they're smart people, they put in a lot of effort," Reiff said. "Sometimes they make mistakes but they do the best they can and as we were set to start the second season, they actually contacted us and said, 'Anything we can do to help you guys out, we're happy to do it.' It was like a 180-degree shift."

As entertainment, the show retains the elements of a suspense drama -- will the good guys be able to thwart the bad ones before it's too late? "This season, things aren't as clear," Reiff said.

"On '24,' there's no question Jack Bauer is going to win. On this show, there's more of a question of what's really going to happen because the show is more naturalistic and more grounded in the real world," Voris said.

For instance, CIA agents will be shown torturing Farik in secret locales beyond Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, generally considered too public for such high-profile terrorists. Later, he will be turned over to Saudi interrogators.

More than other television shows, the scripts have set cast and crew thinking and paying attention to the news.

In August, Ealy stayed up until 5 a.m. to watch news of the thwarted London airplane bombing plot though he had to be on set at 8.

Fehr, a native of Israel, said he was receiving daily reports of airstrikes from relatives during the Israel-Lebanon conflict last summer when he was playing the brutal Farik in his home territory. As he looked in the mirror and saw himself as the enemy, he said, "It was an uncomfortable feeling."

Charles Dutton, who directed three episodes and plays Darwyn's father in one, said, "It gave me a look at it from a non-television-news kind of appreciation or acceptance of it. It's troublesome, but at the same time, they let you know what we're really up against. And how we've got to fix it. Soon."

In writing the episodes, Reiff and Voris said they strive to be hopeful, but also balance all political points of view, a delicate task.

Among several Muslim consultants, Marc Casabani (who last year played a Yemeni scholar who was later killed) advised the production this year on language, religion and customs. "I've worked on other shows as an actor where I've brought things up to the director which wasn't kosher -- or halal, so to speak. They said, 'Oh, it doesn't really matter. We're going to do it this way anyway.' Cy and Ethan are always about getting it right."

In some other shows, subtitles have no relation to what the actors are actually saying in Arabic, he said. "It's such a shame. It's such an easy fix. It's the difference between caring and not caring."

One question for the writers is: How much do they want to humanize the terrorists, especially Farik? "A human being that goes through the kind of torture he goes through during the season, would definitely be broken," Fehr said. "He would not be the same person going in as coming out. I tried to give an element of that."

While conventional wisdom dictates that enemies be portrayed as cardboard characters because they are easier to hate, Reiff takes another view.

"You can get two legitimate differing opinions by military strategists or historians: If you have a better chance to defeat the enemy when you know them only as one-dimensional cardboard caricatures, or if you really know what drives them and who they are and by knowing that, how they could be stopped or defeated. I would vote for the latter."

Reiff quoted his character Farik, who in the pilot episode of the first season explains why he has chosen to disguise himself as a Jewish congregant during a service at a local synagogue: "It's best to know your enemy."

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lynn.smith@latimes.com

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