Few would be shocked to discover a new espionage miniseries, based off historical events, written and produced by “Homeland” talent Gideon Raff. As premises for new shows go, it is a fairly formulaic recipe for success. What is surprising is that the star — the spy himself — would be none other than Sacha Baron Cohen, perhaps best known for pranking America with his series of parody personas like Borat and Ali G. In “The Spy,” Cohen portrays Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born spy working for Mossad in the early ‘60s.
In its first episode — shot in stylishly desaturated black and white with selective uses of color — the show opens with Cohen having forgotten his real identity during an interrogation of some sort. The rest of the episode builds towards that scene, showcasing a series of events and predictable training montage to explain how the army reject Cohen works his way up to a high-level spy mission in Syria. By its end, he is in Argentina ready to work on his cover persona, with the camera returning to full color. It is a well-done, but standard prologue for what looks to be a standard, well-produced miniseries for its ensuing five episodes.
The tone, performances and story based “off real events” are everything one would expect out of a spy thriller. There is some intrigue, a fairly stock “worried spouse” character played by Hadar Rotem, a protagonist with a mixed history embarking on a new mission and even a no-nonsense but earnest boss, as Noah Emmerich of “The Americans” turns in his best attempt at a forced Israeli accent. Anyone expecting an extra dash of personality from Cohen’s comedic background will likely be left disappointed. The most intriguing part of Cohen’s role thus far is the meta-ness of such an iconic character artist playing a spy, a profession that by definition assumes a menagerie of artificial identities, nationalities and backgrounds.
For fans of historical dramas, “The Spy” looks to be a fairly competent one at the very least. Raff has proved his credibility with “Homeland” and in focusing this series on real Israeli history his inspiration is clearly coming out of genuine passion instead of studio-contrived, focus-testing efforts. Clocking in at under six hours for the whole season, it makes a decent case for itself as a bingeable miniseries. Eli Cohen’s real story is a compelling one — he was a chameleon who loyally served Israel and was even close to infiltrating the highest ranks and becoming the Syrian Deputy Minister of Defense. In Israel today, Cohen is still regarded as a national hero.
But what makes for a compelling life story and what makes for a compelling miniseries are different. Given real events and Cohen’s eventual capture, future seasons are unlikely. If “The Spy” finds success on Netflix, it will be appreciated more as an extended film than as a full-fledged series. Spoken in English with accents as opposed to Hebrew and Arabic, the show seems tailor-made to appeal to general audiences which got hooked on “The Americans” and want more accessible spy entertainment. The difference with “The Spy” is that the show fails to grab viewers in its opening because it lacks personality. Cohen’s past in Egypt and failed attempts to apply for military service get shouted out through other characters’ exposition dumps, but they are never shown. What then, is the emotional weight of a training and montage sequence after viewers have only seen Cohen on screen for 15 minutes?
If the era of streaming has proven anything, there is likely a show for anyone. Raff’s “The Spy” will almost surely find a limited audience among espionage addicts who will likely get the show algorithmically recommended in their watchlists. Whether “The Spy” will rise to be a mainstream hit ex nihilo the way Netflix originals like 2018’s “The Bodyguard” have is a different question entirely. Sacha Baron Cohen’s name will surely give the show additional interest, but his inclusion comes of as more of a bait-and-switch to hook more viewers than an unexpected career turn or subversive twist. Cohen may be Jewish and have experience playing eccentric characters of many nationalities, but that does not make him a clear lead to turn “The Spy” into something genuinely new and interesting.