It's Monday, and a merciless late-July sun bounces off white sand and sparkles on rolling surf. The only thing out of place on this perfect Southern California beach day are the tents set up amid the umbrellas and folding chairs, the huge light reflectors, and the camera operators struggling through the deep footing.
Santa Monica is an unlikely setting for a miniseries on terrorism, but that's just what's going on this day during shooting for one of the opening scenes of Showtime's "Sleeper Cell: American Terror," the second miniseries in the franchise that launched to critical acclaim last December with a 10-hour TV event.
Beginning Sunday, Dec. 10, the new eight hours of "American Terror" run nightly, with the finale airing Dec. 17. As with last year, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris are co-creators and executive producers.
When we left the story last year, the domestic terror cell in question had been broken up, with leader Faris al-Farik (Oded Fehr) in United States custody and the future looking uncertain for Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy), the undercover FBI agent who infiltrated his group.
New cast members this year include Thekla Reuten as a Western European woman who converted to Islam and became a radical, Omid Abtahi as an Iraqi expatriate, Kevin Alejandro as a Latino gang member and Jay R. Ferguson as Darwyn's new FBI case handler.
On this day, Darwyn is sprawled on a beach towel beside his girlfriend (Melissa Sagemiller), trying to decide what to do next. Unfortunately for him, the emergence of a new terror cell soon finds him heading straight back into the shadowy world from which he barely escaped.
Also facing tough choices is Farik, who undergoes rigorous interrogation in the United States, then even harsher treatment when he is repatriated to his native Saudi Arabia.
This throws the miniseries straight into the middle of the torture debate raging in the news, which has also occasionally engulfed FOX's breathless political thriller "24," in which torture is a regular plot device.
"We got compared to '24' a lot initially," says Voris, relaxing with Reiff in a seating area with a beach view in a luxury Santa Monica hotel, the other shooting location for the day. "I always say that it's like the opposite sides of a coin. They're doing a Michael Bay movie, and we're doing a Sidney Lumet movie from the '70s, like 'Serpico' or 'Dog Day Afternoon.' It's the same type of material, but very different approaches.
"It's also a legitimate question now, thematically, about the whole War on Terror, with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, in terms of, how do Americans handle this situation?"
The question is far less academic for Fehr, who is also in the hotel for a read-through of the next episode in production, in which he once again is the recipient of some very brutal treatment.
These table readings offer Fehr one of his few opportunities so far to see the other members of the cast, except for the ones playing his captors. It's also a torture in itself, since he can't partake of the lavish lunch spread. Instead, he's poking his fork into a rather forlorn looking pile of greens.
"I've been starving myself," he says (and he does look rather thin and a bit ragged). "Farik's been in detention for months now, been tortured for months. I've been starving myself for months. I haven't had my hair cut; I haven't shaved. I'm eating salad. I don't get to have any bread, any potatoes, anything. I'm irritable."
Fehr also doesn't get to work in the sunshine.
"I don't want to talk about the beach," he says, "because I don't really get to shoot on the beach. I get very dark, dirty, sweaty rooms. We filmed two episodes so far, and it's all been dark, painful, dark. It's very harsh. It wears me out."
In July, world events are also making things harder for Fehr. Born in Israel and playing a fierce, embattled Arab terrorist, he has to come home at night and turn on his television to see the war between his homeland and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Or not.
"I get to go home, and I do not turn on the TV," he says. "I go home, and I hug my children. It's very depressing for me. I love the show. I think this is a fantastic show, but right now, the subject matter is so harsh. It's just hard. My whole family, everybody I know ... I don't know what to say. It's just so sad. It's terrible, that kind of violence, all of it."
Saying that both folks back home in Israel and American Muslims give him positive feedback on the show, Fehr sees a real value in examining issues of extremism, radicalism and how it affects, and is affected by, life in the United States.
"Ethan and Cyrus have been amazing at creating story lines," he says, "that try to stay true as dramatically possible to real life and what is going on. That's what I like about this show so much. We need to talk about it. We need to see it. We need to discuss it. We need to ask questions. We need to try and understand and tell a story and not shy away from it, not hide.
"Everybody's waiting for the next attack. Everybody knows, in the back of our heads. We don't want to think about it, but we're all living in a world right now where we know it is eventually going to happen, some way, somehow."
Fehr also sees a ray of hope in "Sleeper Cell: American Terror." "That's the other thing I love about this show, it really is an optimistic show. Having an FBI agent infiltrate the cell, it's very optimistic. If you think about it, it's an important show."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun