Can we say goodbye now to terror porn? I think that the recent Showtime series Sleeper Cell demonstrates it’s come at last to a dead end.
“Terror porn”: It’s a term that surfaced not long after 9/11 to characterize a newly emerging genre embracing both fiction—24’s purportedly anti-terror melodrama—and nonfiction (the Daniel Pearl snuff film, forerunner of later orange-jumpsuit beheading tapes.)
Terror porn: In its fictional manifestations, it tends to combine an inverse pornographic structure— arousal and incitement leading, usually, to (anti-)climax, terrorist interruptus—with actual porn-like sexual interludes, apparently designed to make up for the failure of the plot (or plotters) to deliver the goods.
Or to keep us from terminal terror-porn boredom, as one phony cliffhanger after another comes to its predictable last-minute reprieve. Oooh… scary, kids! Will 24’s Jack Bauer manage to save the world from terrorist apocalypse this time? The clock is ticking, the green light on the detonator is blinking—just on the aching, unbearably hot verge of turning red and triggering … another explosive anti climax!
Sleeper Cell may have put the final nail in the coffin. Sleeper Cell may be the climactic anti climax. But before getting more deeply into Sleeper Cell’s emblematic instance of terminal terror porn, it might be worthwhile to “contexualize” terror porn, to place it in the tradition of its pop-culture predecessors, “nuke porn” and nuke porn’s successor, “serial-killer porn.”
“Nuke porn” is a term I coined in a Harper’s piece written at the height of the nuclear balance of terror. I was referring to the subterranean, sexualized structure of pop-culture nuclear-war novels and films, ranging from Fail-Safe to Red Alert to Dr. Strangelove (which mocked the genre’s linkage of sex and escalation, sex and apocalyptic nuclear destruction, sex and the finger on the trigger.)
Or, as I described, the nuke-porn sex-terror link: First there was “the soft-core stuff: the tear-jerking, post-attack tristesse of the slowly expiring Australian [nuclear war] survivors in On the Beach, spiced as it was with a memorable seduction ploy in which a doom-maddened woman goes so far as to unfasten her bikini top on a first date, a hint of the unleashed inhibitions the end of the world could engender.” Then there was “the more explicit stuff: such nuclear foreplay novels as Red Alert and Fail-Safe, with their mounting urgencies as the stiffening finger on the atomic button brought the trembling world to the brink of ‘going all the way …. ’” (Those interested can find the piece reprinted in my collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune.)
Serial-killer porn, of the sort that features glimpses of hot, usually illicit sex followed by psychotic-slasher “punishment,” dates back to before Psycho but came into bloody flower after the fall of the Soviet Union made Cold War nuke-porn semi-obsolescent. Coincidence? Sublimation? The need for a new all-pervasive but largely invisible threat? Just asking.
‘Relationship’ Terror Porn
In any case, terror porn tends to have a structure more similar to nuke porn (perhaps because in most cases it involves events that are averted, while serial killers manage to achieve many of their goals before being apprehended, if they are at all).
Terror porn has the same structure of melodramatic arousal: seductive excitement over the mounting threat, so to speak, the heated flush of the build-up, all the techno-foreplay with the super-sensitive buttons and the triggers that will set off the orgy of violence. But Sleeper Cell is different. I don’t want to say it’s intentionally parodic, although I have to say that the last few episodes of Sleeper Cell have more in common with Laguna Beach than On the Beach. It’s become the relationship terror-porn series. If not the Friends of terror porn or the Seinfeld of terror porn, I guess we could call it Curb Your Jihadism. Or maybe, in tribute to the great Jimmy Breslin bumbling-mob book: The Sleeper Cell That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. (They’re always offing the wrong “brother” as the mole. Maybe Survivor: Sleeper Cell?)
All the other structural elements of terror porn are there, though: There’s the seduction of the innocent into complicity and conspiracy, all the devious, murky terror foreplay that makes just about anything short of the destruction of the cosmos anti climactic. And, of course, recurrent hot-babe sex scenes to substitute for the terror climax that doesn’t come.
Of course, there are some particularly stupid infotainment touches. In a scene that must have been very pleasing to the studios and piracy-obsessed execs who greenlight such films, you’ll be surprised to learn that pirated DVD’s and CD’s are a source of terrorist funding just as dangerous as heroin.
And speaking of CD’s, one thing that unites Sleeper Cell with the rest of the terror-porn genre is that wailing Arabic-sounding music in the background, which is invariably used to connote the sinister nature of the boring goings-on. It’s almost as if the people who make these series have somehow concluded that Arabic-sounding wailing music is a “root cause” of terrorism. Indeed, it becomes a kind of aural signature of the supposedly sinister, trance-like essence of the culture it comes from. It can have the Pavlovian effect of making the culture of that music seem intrinsically suspect, a threat to Western Reason with its appeal to the irrational unconscious, the “sleeper cells” of the brain awakened to hypnotic, Svengali-like control.
But having noted the terrorist threat of pirated DVD’s and wailing music, let me get to the story concept. A sleeper cell, in post-9/11 lingo, is a small group of jihadists who maintain normal lives on the surface while awaiting “the call,” awaiting “activation,” when the cell arouses itself and prepares to commit an act of terrorism. Although few actual sleeper cells have been identified, that could, one supposes, be because they’re sleeping very deeply. I have no position on the legitimacy of the concept because there’s little reliable evidence available (see Spencer Ackerman’s May 2005 piece in Salon). But that hasn’t inhibited the show’s producers and writers.
And the “sleeper cell” concept is a powerful, even insidious one, suggesting that one can’t trust anyone, especially anyone Islamic, because no matter how “normal” they may seem, that normality might disguise a jihadist mass murderer.
Sleeper Cell is careful to repeatedly, incessantly tell us that there is good Islam and bad Islam and that the good Islam is the authentic Islam, but cumulatively it can’t help but cast a shadow on all Muslims. Because the very concept of a sleeper cell requires the bad Islamists to disguise themselves as good Islamists, thus encouraging us to distrust “good” Muslims too.
As of this writing, I’ve seen eight episodes out of a planned 10 so far. In the opener, we meet our main character, a guy named Darwyn al-Sayeed, a good guy, light-skinned African-American believer in Islam who is working undercover for the F.B.I. to infiltrate a sleeper cell of bad-guy radical Islamic terrorists directed by the shadowy, super-smooth bad guy, Farik, a bad Muslim posing as a Jew (wow, what a twist! Can’t trust darker-skinned, Semitic-looking Jews, either).
Darwyn (could his name tell us in a super-super-subtle way that he’s, like, “evolved”?), played by Michael Ealy, quickly gets it on with his new neighbor Gayle (the extremely attractive Melissa Sagemiller), who is always clad in filmy tops, and throughout the eight episodes we’re treated to the ups and downs of their relationship, in which interludes of hot sex are followed by episodes in which the demands of Darwyn’s undercover jihadist job interrupt their plans, and she gets all “you haven’t called me for days,” and he’s like giving her lame excuses, and she has to wait by the phone while he’s out creepin’ with the sleeper cell, and then we find out she’s totally lying to him about her husband, who isn’t dead but in the joint, so it’s like the whole high concept of Sleeper Cell in miniature: Can we trust each other? Can’t we all just get along?
To further this concept, our sleeper cell in Sleeper Cell is a kind of Rainbow Coalition. Mass terror can bring us together! In addition to Darwyn, who’s black, and Farik, who’s Semitic, there’s a blonde American guy, Tommy, who looks like a cross between Matt Damon and Corky from Life Goes On. He turns out to have mother problems. (See, we get to really get inside the personal lives of the sleeper-cell crew; they’re like humanized.) The mother, who makes a brief appearance, is both a hottie who shags—terror-porn style—another guy in the sleeper cell, giving us the episode’s mandatory sex moment (MSM). But she’s also a literary professor and advocate of contemporary literary theory. Which implicitly is responsible for her promiscuity, which has damaged the psyche of the Matt Damon/Corky guy. Which makes this the first instance in terror porn in which the “root causes of terror” are to be found in the Comp. Lit. Department. Even I, no fan of fashionable lit-crit theory, would not blame them for this.
Where were we? Oh, yes, the other members of the L.A.-based Rainbow Coalition sleeper cell. Well, there’s a Bosnian and a French guy (unshaven in a GQ-model way) whose day job is a tour-bus operator, which allows him to pick up babelicious tourists and have hot, naked interludes whenever an MSM is needed.
I’m sorry—did I get distracted from the extremely serious terrorist plot? Actually, I think that might be part of the point I was making, the linkage in pop-culture narratives of terrorism and hot sex. (Anyone remember the opening of American History X?)
It’s a connection whose iconography may—on the surface, at least—trace itself back to the legendary pre-9/11 strip-club visits of Mohammed Atta’s crew, which forever fused in the pop-culture imagination terrorist urgency and sexual urgency. (Although, in a way that seems unfair to the poor sex workers who’d serviced—or failed to service—the 9/11 terror cell, by implicitly suggesting that if they’d been more “generous” with their favors, the Atta crew would have forsaken the promised 72 virgins.)
And remember “terror sex,” all the hot hookin’ up that supposedly took place after the Twin Towers fell? (Insert wise-guy remark here.) Maybe it’s the puritanical strain in the culture, unable to disentangle sex and terror. Or, as I speculated in Explaining Hitler, there is the compulsion to find a sexual “root” of all aberrant political behavior, a hangover from Freud, and from Wilhelm Reich’s alt-Freudian sexual explanation of fascism.
By the way, let me state for the record I’m not the kind of guy who objects to gratuitous sex on TV. It’s usually by far the best thing in films and TV series that make use of it—certainly better than the gratuitous violence, and better than the gratuitous plot and characters at the very least. But Sleeper Cell’s terror porn has been degraded to mere grim dutifulness in the show’s attempt to make terror (or at least terrorists) hot in its iconography of sex as a signifier of doom and evil.
Topless Babes in Hitler’s Bunker
At this point, could you entertain for a moment what might seem like a digression from Sleeper Cell’s terror porn to the excrescence of Nazi porn in the disgraceful German docufictionary, Downfall?
That was the recent German-made film about the last days in Hitler’s bunker, the film that German liberal intellectuals saw through as a blatant attempt to exculpate the German people’s historical complicity in the crimes of Hitler. It does so by portraying Nazi evil as the product of a few deranged cult followers of a mad god, Hitler, who somehow, with his Svengali skills, duped the otherwise innocent and credulous German people into following him. (Yes, in this film, Hitler’s chief visible victims are the poor German people.) It’s remarkable how many otherwise intelligent people I’ve heard praising this deeply meretricious work.
And the symbol of its intellectual fraudulence is, of course, the pathetic Liza-in-Cabaret orgiastic party-in-the-bunker number featuring topless babes. I mean, give me a break!
So this isn’t really a digression. Watching Downfall, one felt that the topless babes weren’t just about nudity, but rather some dopey thesis that Hitler’s evil was the product of a few deranged people whose degradation was symbolized by the bad behavior at their party. I mean, those who tolerate such outrageousness are capable of anything.
But that’s terror porn for you: the attempt to be simultaneously puritanical and prurient in the presence of great evil. Not different (except that terror porn is evil on a larger scale) from the dramatic aesthetic of slasher and serial-killer films. (And I don’t want to make too much of it, but … Peter Braunstein’s fixation on “The Carver,” the rapist, slasher and serial killer from the Nip/Tuck series: a terror-porn epitome, no?)
But to return to Sleeper Cell: The show flounders because, at a certain point, all foreplay and no climax makes the series a dull void. The cycle of arousal and deflation can become comically tedious, and the writers are driven to ridiculously parodic fake-orgasm plot devices.
Like their anthrax episode: After all the buildup, all the sinister Arabic-sounding music (mixed with hip-hop and world music, also given sinister connotations), the sleeper-cell team (super-antiheroes) are shown at last in action! Dumping “weapons-grade anthrax” into the rooftop ventilating duct at some mall. We’re shown shots of little children playing inside the mall, cut with shots of the sinister-looking ventilators that will bring the death spores to the children’s lungs.
The whole crew wears alien-looking HazMat suits with high-tech, gas-masked helmets. They’ve got shiny, high-tech canisters of the “weapons-grade anthrax.” A climax seems to impend.
Ooooh … scary, kids!! But no …. It turns out at the very end of the episode that it was all a test! They had dumped harmless “tracers” into the ventilating system, but no anthrax itself. Farik wanted to test the commitment of the sleeper-cell team.
And the real anthrax? In the next episode, they manage to lose it altogether (fave quote: “You stole our anthrax and tried to ship it to your uncle?”). The Gang That Couldn’t Terrorize Straight strikes again. Maybe they’ll get it together, sadly, in the final episode, but you know, I don’t care.
The Energizer Bunny Anticlimax
Still, I guess I should note for the record, having just seen the final episode after writing all of the above: Guess what? Surprise, surprise—the Sleeper Cell sleeper cell finally rouses itself for the big “Judgment Day” terror apocalypse and … it fails to come off. See, the F.B.I. undercover agent took the batteries out of the detonator that was supposed to kill tens of thousands in Dodger Stadium by blowing up the fake fire truck they’d filled with poisonous phosgene gas.
He took the batteries out! Ten episodes of terror porn, and they give us an Energizer Bunny climax! Not that one wanted to see thousands die, even in a fictional rendition, but aside from Melissa Sagemiller, was it all worth it for that?
Still, just when you thought the whole terror-porn/terror-sex trope had reached a dead end, you discover new developments. Recently on cable I saw Left Behind, the film based on the Left Behind series of Book of Revelations thrillers. What the film did was literalize the Book of Revelations and turn it into the ultimate in terror porn, apocalypse porn: We learn that Nicolae, the Antichrist himself, is planning a terror attack—using anthrax! Plus he’s carrying on a hot affair with a blond flight attendant. That’s Satan for you.
Meanwhile, here are two excerpts from reviews of what sounds like a terror-porn vision from a Jewish director. You’ve heard about his movie Munich, I suppose. You’ve probably heard of the director. I haven’t seen it, but there’s one detail I noticed in the advance reviews, a climactic moment in the story of terrorism and counterterrorism that suggests a resort to terror-porn cliché.
“Spielberg cuts between Avner’s tormented sexual union with his wife and a flashback to the murder of the athletes” (Entertainment Weekly). And: “Spielberg brings his movie to its metaphorical climax when Avner, in bed with his wife, literally climaxes while daydreaming about the Munich massacre” (the New York Post).
I can’t believe it could be that simplistic. That might be the scariest thing of them all.