The opening episode, or perhaps just the first scene, is all you need to understand the craft, trajectory, and purpose of Gideon Raff’s new Netflix limited series, “The Spy.” Flashing forward to the six-hour story’s end, viewers meet real-life Mossad secret agent Eli Cohen (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) after he’s been captured by the Syrian government and forced to pen a farewell letter to his wife. But when he’s about to sign his name, Eli stops. The man observing him, purely for the audience’s benefit, says, “My poor boy, you do not remember your name?”
Cue the titles and, from there, the series shifts back in time, six years earlier, to see how Eli landed the job, developed his skills, and ended up imprisoned with no memory of who he is — but for anyone who’s watched a spy show before, it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen – if not already, then definitely by the time the first hour wraps: Undercover operations require new identities; convincing suspicious people of those identities takes commitment; commitment plus time confuses the mind, and boom! Suddenly, the spy who started his mission isn’t the same man as the one who ends it.
The unforeseeable sacrifice of blind patriotism would be a fine story to tell, if what happens in “The Spy” wasn’t so painfully foreseeable. Raff’s limited series is much more interested in the personal toll spying takes on Eli than the political and societal ramifications of his efforts, which helps make this sturdy true story resonate. But TV audiences have watched these character studies explored with more nuance, surprises, and ambition than this old school thriller, which is too content to let its predictable tale play out to an ending it spoils from the start. Even if you didn’t know anything about the real-life Eli, you know what’s going to happen in “The Spy.”
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That wouldn’t be such a problem if all there was to know about the eponymous spy was evident from the start. What makes “The Spy” intriguing on its face is the Cohen behind the Cohen: Sacha Baron playing Eli is quite a choice, given most fans know the chameleon-like comedian from his situational satires like “Da Ali G Show,” “Borat,” and “Who Is America?” Though he’s appeared in dramas before (who can forget “Les Miserables”?), seeing Cohen portray a real-life character with minimal makeup in a leading role is an intriguing test of his acting abilities and screen presence sans gimmicks. (No offense intended — his provocations are typically very smart, but still gimmicks.) This is a showcase, and the predictable nature of the plot puts even more weight on the star’s solo exhibition.
But after six hours, it’s hard to argue for or against Cohen pursuing more natural, dramatic parts. He simply doesn’t add a lot to the character and, consequentially, the show built around him. While perfectly capable of eliciting the intended responses — when Eli is bored, Cohen’s eyes drift off to the horizon; when Eli is nervous, his eyes narrow, brow furls, and mouth grimaces; when he’s undercover, just the faintest of clues give away his true feelings — so many of these depictions feel like choices. Either the camera catches one or two shots of the emotion Cohen needs to share, or the scene’s construction makes it clear.
Cohen does pull off a more subtle transformation across the limited series’ six-year timeline, first getting jacked during a training montage and eventually shifting his way of speaking, demeanor, and behavior to reflect how half-a-decade of spycraft can change a man. There are even a handful of stand-out moments —like when, while undercover, Eli is asked to shoot innocent civilians as a sign of loyalty and conflicting feelings rapidly flash across his face — but there’s not enough here to make “The Spy” riveting from scene-to-scene. The only way a show like this will work is with a magnetic presence at its center, and Cohen is engaging at best. It’s not that he needs comedy, makeup, or props to come alive in front of the camera, but if he’s going to be a leading man, he needs to find a way to bring more personality to the proceedings without those assets.
“The Spy” benefits from vivid shots courtesy of series D.P. Itai Ne’eman, as well as another nuanced turn from “The Americans” star Noah Emmerich, playing Eli’s cautious handler. Even Hadar Ratzon Rotem, who’s saddled with the somewhat thankless character of Eli’s unknowing wife, Nadia, elevates her beyond a left-behind symbol of what her husband lost. These smaller aspects are both magnified and nullified by the larger story and performance — they stand out briefly before being overwhelmed by banality. For anyone who’s obsessed with Cohen or the genre itself, Raff’s classic construction should satisfy. For everyone else, this “Spy” is just too obvious.
“The Spy,” a six-episode limited series, is streaming now on Netflix.