Netflix's The Spy Season 1 Review

Old school spycraft, Mossad-style

by Casimir Harlow

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Netflix's sombre spy series - from the de facto creator of Homeland - marks a welcome, unrecognisable, turn from Sasha Baron Cohen as legendary Israeli Mossad Agent, Eli Cohen.

Gideon Raff is often forgotten about when it comes to the excellent TV series Homeland, but he's effectively the man behind it all, having not only created, written and directed the original Israeli TV series Prisoners of War, which it was based upon, but then translated the original Hebrew scripts to English for Homeland, executive producing the show and even co-writing the first episode. His follow-up show, Tyrant, wasn't as well received, but still ran for three seasons, and he more recently celebrated another audacious piece of Israeli Mossad genius with The Red Sea Diving Resort, a kind-of Argo-lite for Netflix.

Continuing his themes of Israeli spy heroes, Raff goes further back in time for The Spy, writing and directing a show that charts the operations of Israel's celebrated spy, Eli Cohen, a veritable national hero, whose exploits arguably changed the course of history in the Middle East during the 1960s.

The Spy is content taking its time establishing the characters and it pays dividends when you find yourself invested in their plight

Former Israeli Defence Force (IDF) operative, turned simple clerk, Eli Cohen finds himself recruited by Mossad and feels that he can finally be recognised for his dedication and hard work. The training is hard, and the work is harder, but Cohen is a surprising natural, soon finding his rich Syrian businessman persona fully integrated within the ranks of the Syrian Government, feeding his intelligence reports back home and hoping that every next day will pass without him being caught.
Netflix
The Spy sets its sombre tone right from the outset, seeking to distance star Sasha Baron Cohen as far as possible away from his iconic comic personas, flashing forward with a cold open that depicts a clearly tortured Eli Cohen writing what are presumably his last words, as his wife back home hears news on the radio of his capture.

Those familiar with the history may well have already known that things got pretty dark for Cohen but, if not, the series makes it clear from the outset that this is a celebration of everything that came from his great sacrifices, charting his seemingly innocuous rise to one of the most powerful players, not only in Mossad's arsenal but actually in the upper echelons of Syria's Government.

A relatively short 6-episode mini-series (and whilst they call it 'Season 1', don't expect another), The Spy is still content taking its time establishing the characters, Cohen's home life, his handler and fellow agents (learning the tradecraft is an easy highlight in the first couple of episodes), and it pays dividends when you find yourself invested in their plight.

Worth investing your time in though, not least to see what Cohen's really capable of

Sasha Baron Cohen is almost unrecognisable in his dual personas, and does a fantastic job embracing the sobering portrait of a dedicated patriot and supremely talented agent - it's genius casting, as you get the feeling that the real Cohen was an unlikely candidate for the job too (he'd already been rejected by Mossad, and it took years before they decided to try something outside the box). Certainly, it's crazy to think that Ali G, Bruno - hell, the guy who just a couple of years back was spoofing spies in Grimsby - could be so perfectly cast in such a serious role; and of a real-life legend no less. Noah Emmerich (The Americans, Warrior) and Alexander Siddig (24, Gotham) often welcome support, and indeed the entire cast are commendably authentic in their roles, but it's Cohen's baby and he's the one who keeps you invested.

The Spy isn't a perfected espionage thriller, with the effect of playing its best cards in the opening frames - to help convince us that Cohen was right for the role - being to sap some of the inertia in the ensuing episodes, which makes it a purposefully paced ride to a more eventful, and more tense, second half. It's worth investing your time in though, not least to see what Cohen's really capable of.

Scores

Verdict

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7
7
AVForumsSCORE
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10

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