In one of the rare moments in “The Spy” that aspires to a little bit more than a straightforward spy drama — a perfectly fine thing to aspire to, in its own right — you get a glimpse of what the best version of this show might have been.
In the fifth of six episodes, our man in Damascus, Eli Cohen (Sacha Baron Cohen), Israeli spy extraordinaire, is instructed to hold a party for members of the Syrian military and government elite. The party will distract the attendees long enough to allow for his high-level contacts in the Baathist Party to stage a coup, further cementing their power and, unbeknownst to them, Cohen’s ability to report back on their activities.
To the Syrians, he is not Eli Cohen, but Kamel Amin Thaabet, successful businessman and Syrian patriot who only wants to be of service to his country. During the thrilling, terrifying sequence that follows, the pace of the music rises with the cutting between the violence of the coup and the bacchanal of a soirée; soldiers wordlessly execute shocked enemies of the party as drinks flow and a graphic orgy continues, its participants unaware of what’s to come. It’s simply wonderful, and the most exciting part of the series.
Alas, the pace and color of that scene is seldom replicated in “The Spy,” a by-the-book spy show that should nevertheless hold special intrigue for those already familiar with Cohen’s story.
“Inspired by true events,” “The Spy” tells the story of Cohen, an Egyptian Jew whose daring feats of espionage in the early ’60s are the stuff of legend. The show makes the oft-repeated case that it was Cohen’s idea to suggest to the Syrian military that they should mark their underground bunkers with aboveground trees, which would make them easy targets for Israeli shells in just a few years. The suggestion is smart, but what makes it incredible is that it carried such weight. Indeed, Cohen is offered the position of deputy defense minister at one point, illustrating just how far he was able to climb.
And who better to play such a man — endlessly charming, quick with a joke, a master of improvisation — than Sacha Baron Cohen? Baron Cohen’s exploits as Borat, Ali G, Bruno and other characters he’s sprung on the unsuspecting public over the years are a much lower-stakes version of what Eli Cohen was tasked with. For Baron Cohen, being exposed as a fake would just result in another take. For Eli Cohen, exposure meant certain torture and death.
Baron Cohen, a wonderful actor with uncommonly expressive lips, is convincing as the Israeli spy, especially as Eli Cohen loses himself more and more in Thaabet. And the show does find some excitement and color; when Cohen is in Syria, the screen bursts with the wares of bustling bazaars, amber liquor shared between powerful men and the verdant hills of the Syrian countryside. But back in Israel, Cohen’s handlers and his wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon-Rotem), are depicted in an oppressively desaturated gray, and their scenes, unfortunately, are less interesting. Nadia’s plight as a wife abandoned and in the dark about her husband’s profession is explored without much of a conclusion besides: It’s hard!
The scenes with Cohen’s handlers leave much to be desired as well. So much of the action is perfunctory: Higher-ups clear a room with “Everybody out!” and argue whether it’s too dangerous to leave their agent in the field. Manila folders are angrily snapped shut. Underlings bearing urgent messages exaggeratedly shove people aside as they charge down hallways. Noah Emmerich, playing one of Cohen’s commanders, is excellent in another spy show, “The Americans,” but he cannot save the unimaginative dialogue, and his Israeli accent is baffling, when he actually uses one.
The show is at its best when Cohen is doing the thing that makes him a successful spy, which is to make a carefully planned introduction seem like nothing but a pleasant chance encounter. The friendship he develops with the brash nephew of a Syrian powerful general (Nassim Si Ahmed) gets genuinely interesting as the nephew’s defenses erode and he shares his anxieties — about his station in life, about his sexuality — with a man he believes to be his true friend. But again, the show gives precious little time to explore what Cohen feels about his deception when it ends poorly for those he deceives, and what the deceived feel later on when Cohen is finally caught and executed.