Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career out of subterfuge. As Ali G, Borat, Bruno and others, Cohen has used his comedic talents to become Hollywood’s best undercover operator, duping Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Joe Arpaio, Ted Koppel and more to underscore American hubris, bigotry and overall cluelessness with little more than a camera, makeup and an accent. You’d think he’d be a natural for The Spy, Netflix’s new miniseries.

But under the confines of a scripted period drama, Cohen proves less a chameleon and more an apt protagonist for a series that’s short on drama and shorter on plot twists and surprises. The result feels like a documentary that dramatizes portions not caught on camera or through interviews. It’s a serviceable show and portrays a compelling real-life character. But Spy promises a John le Carré-style drama,  and viewers may feel double-crossed by the unfulfilled pledge.

Cohen plays Eli Cohen (no relation), a real Israeli spy who infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian government in the 1960s. Cohen is taking on the role not just of a secret agent, but a super one, and the results are undeniably muted, thanks in part to a script that telegraphs where it’s headed in the opening moments of the series.

As The Spy begins, Eli is a happily married Israeli Everyman, an Egyptian Jew forced to expatriate to Tel Aviv.  He bristles at his perceived secondary status as a Sephardic Jew, though his angst is buried within the scribbled love notes to his doting wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem). Those conflicting faces underscore The Spy‘s fault line; creator Gideon Raff seems determined to muffle an explosive subject so as not to offend viewer sensitivities. Even the color palette of the series is so dampened as appear black-and-white in sections.

Approached by the Mossad, which is desperate to embed an agent in Syria, Eli turns out to be a wiz at spycraft, as a training montage turns Eli into a Bond-ian operative with a memorable call number to boot: Agent 88. Eli learns his new trade from a gruff handler (Noah Emmerich, with one of the more awkward Israeli accents in a series rife with them). Eli begins his identity makeover in Buenos Aires, where he poses as a rich and debonair import-exporter who longs to return to a Syrian homeland he has never seen.

For those not familiar with the real Eli Cohen (he’s much more known in Israel than America), Raff lays out the hero’s arc in the first episode — and scene. The opening shot is a flash-forward to the series’ end after the Mossad secret agent is captured by the Syrian government and forced to write a farewell letter to his wife. In case you missed the message of the story in trailers, the scene even includes a line of dialogue from a jail observer: “My poor boy, you do not remember your name?”

From there, the series shifts back in time, six years earlier, to portray how Eli turned into the spy he became, and the cost he had to pay in memories and self-identity.  The unforeseeable sacrifice of blind patriotism is fine story fodder, if only it were unforeseeable for viewers. But if you’ve seen any of the Bourne movies, you’ve seen The Spy, just with more nuance, action and acting chops.

What makes The Spy watchable are two intriguing elements: the “true story” gravitas of the series, and the choice of Baron Cohen as the leading man. Sacha Baron playing Eli is a bold decision, given most fans know the chameleon comedian from his situational satires Da Ali G ShowBorat, and Who Is America? Though he’s appeared in dramas before (he was in Hugo and Les Miserables), seeing Cohen play a real-life character with little makeup is an intriguing test of his acting skills — and of audiences’ ability to suspend disbelief.

But after six hours, it’s hard to argue for or against Cohen’s career choice. He hits the emotive marks the script demands, and he hardly weighs down a series that could have crumbled under its own seriousness. But rarely does he provide more than faces of nervousness or boredom, and it’s hard to tell whether the limitations are in his ability or in the story he inherited. There are even a handful of sterling moments, like when Eli is asked to shoot civilians to prove his loyalty.  But there are too few to call The Spy riveting.

The series benefits from beautiful photography by Itai Ne’eman, and Emmerich adds some much-needed subtlety to the series, despite a clunky accent. Rotem also elevates her character beyond that of a hand-wringing housewife left behind. But the strengths are not enough to negate the series’ looming obviousness. And for a spontaneous actor like Sacha Baron Cohen, predictability is an indefatigable foe.