“The Spy,” Netflix’s new limited series, places Sacha Baron Cohen in a relatively unfamiliar position: stripping him of his humor and placing him within the bounds of a script. On shows and in films ranging from “Borat” to last year’s “Who Is America?,” Baron Cohen has gone into without-a-net scenarios and never broken character. There’s an analogy here, of sorts: Playing an undercover agent, an Israeli spy in the years leading up to that nation’s 1967 war with Syria, Baron Cohen retains a bit of his admirable elasticity. Any spy worth their salt has to be able to present different sides to different people, of course. But the role gives him too little of those scenes, favoring a domestic drama that grounds the show and robs the star of a weapon he has a unique ability to deploy. As a spy drama, the series is as plodding as its title, reminding the audience of more soaring efforts and lending incident but not enough interest.
Baron Cohen plays the real-life former Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who is recruited to go undercover in Syria to uncover their martial plans against hated neighbor Israel. Naturally charismatic and a bit blank, Eli melts into the job, even as it distances him further and further from his wife (Hadar Ratzon Rotem). Soon enough, he’s at the height of the Syrian power apparatus, having sacrificed whatever was his self in the name of gathering intel.
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While this series’ creator, Gideon Raff, is best known for “Prisoners of War,” the Israeli program that inspired “Homeland,” it feels more apropos to invoke “The Americans,” a show that shares not merely “The Spy’s” interest in the interplay of tradecraft and personal relationships but also a bit of casting; Noah Emmerich assumes a new accent to play Eli’s handler. But that comparison emphasizes that which “The Spy” lacks: A degree of verve or spice in telling a story with meaningful historical valence but also, close to its center, adventure. “The Spy,” whose central character has submerged his identity, yes, but is also a master of crafting new ones, is too doleful by half; the point that Eli’s wife has been abandoned in pursuit of the mission is a valuable one, but one that seems emphasized often at the expense of simple curiosity about what a spy is or does. We get domestic drama executed at a level we’ve seen many times before instead rather than the high-level spyjinks that come along all too rarely.
By the time it reaches its endpoint, a viewer will feel that they’ve been told a great deal — including, in a series-ending set of chyrons, a bit of history the show might have found a way to more interestingly dramatize. (Recent limited series, including HBO’s “Chernobyl” and Netflix’s own “When They See Us,” have more gracefully brought their true-life stories in for a landing — aided, of course, by characters for whom we deeply felt.) But too little, to the point the series ends, has been shown of any side of Eli other than a yes/no conflict between duty to nation and duty to spouse. We know the dueling missions he’s on. But Baron Cohen, an actor who elsewhere has demonstrated an uncanny ability to illuminate new angles on even the most intractable of conflicts, can’t make them feel more interesting than they are, or get us to know Eli the way the running time of “The Spy” would need to demand. As history, “The Spy” is enlightening; as story, it needed more.
“The Spy.” Netflix. Sept. 6. Six episodes (all screened for review.)
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon Rotem, Waleed Zuaiter.
Producer: Alain Goldman
Written and Directed by: Gideon Raff