The Netflix series, says Alan Sepinwall, is "a thriller played entirely straight, but it also feels like Baron Cohen’s persona with vastly higher stakes. His specialty, after all, is to adopt a character like Borat, or like Who Is America? conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., and portray him out in the wild, opposite strangers who have to believe the character is real for the joke to work. If someone sees through one of Baron Cohen’s disguises, everybody just leaves and the sketch gets left on the cutting room floor, whereas Eli Cohen had to stay in character for months on end, with his life at stake if he slipped. But the basic principle is the same." Created by Gideon Raff, whose Israeli drama Prisoners of War inspired Showtime's Homeland, "The Spy doesn’t dwell on the parallels between the careers of the two (unrelated) Cohens," says Sepinwall. "Still, it’s hard not to see them, particularly once Eli goes from nervous rookie operative to a smooth operator who charms his way into the highest echelons of Syria’s government and society. And while there are times in Baron Cohen’s sketch career where it seems unlikely that no one is questioning the reality or a Borat or Bruno, he seems utterly plausible as Kamel, a wealthy importer/exporter who throws the best parties in Damascus. It is, by design, a decidedly unflashy performance."
The version of Sacha Baron Cohen we see in The Spy is unprecedented: "He looks dour and formidable and stripped of the ridiculousness he usually bakes into his full-body performances," says Kate Knibbs. "The series is a deviation for Cohen, a serious detour from a path paved with pranks and fart jokes. But the swerviness of the choice is what makes it, and him, so appealing—after all, since he broke into the pop culture mainstream in the early aughts, Cohen’s best work has relied on the element of surprise."
The Spy feels like a memorial plaque turned into a miniseries: "I will skip over the details of what happens at the end of The Spy to retain the grim sense of oncoming doom for viewers who do not know the specifics of Eli Cohen’s legacy," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "But the idea that the end of this story is a surprise, that The Spy builds up to the finale with a slow, determined march toward destiny that many in its audience will not know in advance, gets to the core question of why The Spy exists. It seems to exist in order to tell people about Eli Cohen, to illustrate the story for audiences who may never have heard it. It is, almost without reservation, a celebration of Cohen’s sacrifices and his dedication. It’s as if a commemorative plaque from a particularly gruesome historical location was made it into a six-part miniseries."
Cohen plays his Spy role straight -- too straight: "At least in this part, Baron Cohen can’t put over multiple, complicated motivations and qualities at once: it-guy charisma, borderline off-putting eagerness and devotion, the narcissism of being the best spy in Israel, and Everyman decency," says Willa Paskin. "So he does only the last."
Cohen smoothly lives inside two separate identities without changing appearances: "Watching Cohen play these identities both apart from one another and, even more dangerously, within each other, creates such fascinating tension throughout most of the drama’s six episodes," says Melanie McFarland, "that the viewer almost forgets the damage done to friends and allies Eli cultivated and cast aside along the way."
Cohen on his failed attempts to bring comedy to the role: "I tried to pitch comic alternatives to every line and suggest that he become a great wit and the Oscar Wilde of Syria, but Gideon quite rightly refused to accept any of my changes. In the end I just had to act the words and pretend to be him."