Before we go any further, we need to be clear that The Spy is Israeli propaganda. This is neither an endorsement or rebuke of the show's political content, just an acknowledgement that it's there. The Spy is a based-on-a-true-story drama about a noble patriot who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his country and remains faithful to his beloved wife even though he has many opportunities to cheat on her. He is not a complex character; he is a hero. The limited series is co-written and directed by Gideon Raff, an Israeli filmmaker who makes sophisticated shows and movies about brave Mossad agents and IDF soldiers, such as the recent Netflix movie The Red Sea Diving Resort and the Israeli series Prisoners of War, which was adapted into Homeland, which is itself CIA propaganda. This is all to say, know what you're getting into.
The Spy stars Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, Borat himself) in a rare dramatic role as Eli Cohen, a Mossad agent who infiltrated the highest ranks of Syrian political and military society and passed intelligence back to Israel between 1961 and 1965. Posing as an Argentine-Syrian businessman named Kamel Thaabet, the Egypt-born Cohen earned the trust of high-ranking members of the Syrian Ba'ath Party, including the man who would become the president in a 1963 coup, Colonel Amin al-Hafez (Waleed Zuaiter), who considered him a close friend. The series tracks his life and career during his time as a spy, from his recruitment into the Mossad and training by a handler named Dan Peleg (The Americans' Noah Emmerich, unable to escape the spy life) to his exploits in Syria to his capture. But while espionage thriller is part of the show's DNA, it's ultimately more of a character drama about Cohen himself, and the toll living as someone else takes on him and his relationship with his wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem).
It's an interesting role for Baron Cohen, who is famous for transforming into other people and going undercover for his comedy. Baron Cohen has said he feels some kinship with Cohen (no relation), since they both live dual lives and have to convince the people they're deceiving that the character they're playing is a real person. Cohen infiltrated enemy strongholds while Baron Cohen incited homophobic riots for comedy, but the techniques they used are not that different, though obviously of different orders of magnitude.
It's not the first time Baron Cohen has played a Mossad agent; on Who Is America?, his controversial comedy series from last year, one of his characters was Israeli antiterrorism "expert" Erran Morad, who satirized Israeli militarism and the American right's obsession with it (the "Kinderguardians" bit was his idea). Two more different depictions of the Mossad could not be found, so it's odd to see Baron Cohen playing them both, but he's an intelligent man who presumably sees both sides of a complex issue. And even though he has a mustache, he's not doing anything Borat-like here. It's a pretty stoic performance, and Baron Cohen is convincing in the role.
Raff's direction is stylish. The scenes in Israel are rendered in not-quite black-and-white, with pops of color provided by things like car tail lights and citrus fruit, while scenes in Syria are bright and vibrant, symbolizing that Cohen's secret life is exciting and the home life he's not really living is drab, I guess. It seems like it's supposed to be symbolic, but it's rather unclear. The text of letters the characters write etch themselves in handwriting all over the screen, and telegrams Cohen taps out urgently fly across the frame as dots and dashes that rearrange themselves into words. It gives some pizzazz to scenes that could be visually flat otherwise.
The Spy is entertaining, if unmemorable. The plot isn't particularly twisty and the characters are two-dimensional. It doesn't actually engage with the historical politics in any meaningful way. Plus there's the ethical question of an American corporation sponsoring another nation's propaganda. If you're really in the market for a period piece about Israeli spies, watch The Little Drummer Girl, last year's AMC miniseries with Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard that's better in every way. But if you're a Sacha Baron Cohen fan and you want to see him do something different, knock yourself out.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
The Spy premieres Friday, Sept. 6 on Netflix.