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Even by the standards of a Hollywood ecosystem where everything is IP, and IP is everything, the idea of adapting a TV show from Mr. & Mrs. Smith seemed odd. The 2005 action-comedy exists in the pop-culture memory less as a movie (though it’s excellent) than as the origin story of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie‘s relationship. Remaking it without them would be like rebooting Top Gun without Tom Cruise, or, if we’re getting really crazy, trying to make a Han Solo movie that doesn’t star Harrison Ford. [Checks notes.] You get the idea.
The announcement that Amazon Prime Video was developing a Mr. & Mrs. Smith series felt exciting despite the absence of Pitt and Jolie, however, because it involved a couple who would be thrilling in a very different way: Donald Glover and Phoebe Waller-Bridge were set to both co-create and star. Real-life romance, real-life schmomance. When you put the minds behind Atlanta and Fleabag together, it would feel like an event even if they were remaking Gigli.
But then Waller-Bridge dropped out of the project over creative differences, Atlanta writer Francesca Sloane took over as co-creator, and Maya Erskine from Pen15 stepped in as the show’s female lead. These are talents in their own right (Erskine also co-created Pen15), but not of a big enough stature to overcome the questionable idea behind the series in the first place. Without that titanic team-up, why bother?
Whatever that theoretical version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Waller-Bridge would have been, the actual show that Glover, Sloane, Erskine, and Co. have made is wonderful. It cleverly inverts the movie’s premise. It blends the best elements of retro TV and modern TV, and deftly balances the ridiculousness of the core idea with the danger of it. And if Glover and Erskine’s chemistry isn’t so scorching that you assume they must be getting together in real life, they play off each other incredibly well throughout. It’s a whole lot of fun.
In the movie, Pitt and Jolie’s John and Jane Smith are a real married couple who are shocked to discover that they’re assassins who work for rival companies. On the show, Glover and Erskine’s versions go in knowing that they are working for the same violent organization — even if they have no idea exactly what it is, and have no point of contact with their superiors other than a group chat with a seemingly chipper texter they dub “Hihi.” But here, they are total strangers who have been placed in a sham marriage, and are surprised to discover it’s evolving into a real relationship(*).
(*) This was also the premise of The Americans, though that show played it for heavy drama. At one point here, Jane even notes that the KGB often paired off deep cover agents, because it would make them less likely to defect if they were part of a couple.
Though Amazon is dropping all eight episodes as a binge release, Sloane and Glover have constructed a series that, like Peacock’s great Poker Face, follows a tried-and-true Case of the Week structure, and one laden with fabulous guest stars. One hour might feature John and Jane trying to get secrets out of a reclusive mogul played by John Turturro, while another gives you Sarah Paulson as a couples therapist trying to help John and Jane work through their issues, even as she has no idea what they actually do for a living. (Other guests include Parker Posey, Wagner Moura, Paul Dano, Michaela Coel, Sharon Horgan, and Ron Perlman.)
With a murderer’s row of directors, many of them Atlanta alums like Hiro Murai, Amy Seimetz, and Glover himself, each episode feels distinctive and satisfying in its own right, even as they all track the evolution of this bizarre romance. In an early conversation, Jane complains that she doesn’t know John. “Yeah,” he replies, “but we’re married.” He’s obviously interested in her from the start, while she’s more guarded, and tries to establish rules that will keep their real and fake lives separate. Of course things soon turn messy, as you would expect from two attractive people(*) sharing such close quarters, and so many near-death experiences. And as the feelings start to turn genuine, the missions become much more complicated.
(*) Glover in particular is decked out in the most stylish, and tightest, fits possible. The benefits of being an executive producer as well as a star is that you get to look your best. The finale, which he directed, places John in all white and Jane in all black, and the contrast — particularly under the circumstances in which they find themselves — is visually dynamite. Also stunning to look at is the swank New York brownstone the company has renovated for our heroes, which is such real estate porn that it’s hard to tell if their neighbor Harris (Dano) is obsessed with it because he’s also a spy, or if he’s just envious of the place, which has a pool, an elevator, a rooftop composter, and a terrace just for yoga, among other flourishes.
Glover and Erskine are best known for their comedy work, and there’s a lot of sly humor to be found in the emotional clashes between the two. But the show also manages to take things seriously whenever necessary. One episode finds John and Jane in Italy, protecting a wealthy businessman (Perlman) from a seemingly endless team of hired killers; the action is creative and genuinely exciting, and there’s never any doubt how capable John and Jane are. (This makes a good double bill with Erskine’s work in the fantastic Blue Eye Samurai.) The couples counseling episode features a lot of entertaining bickering between the leads, but when it turns into a deeper and darker argument, the emotions from both actors are grippingly raw.
Eventually, the season even finds a way to re-create some of the dynamic of the movie. By that point, it feels wholly earned. This Mr. & Mrs. Smith isn’t just one of the better instances of a seemingly unnecessary remake of a familiar title working out well; it’s genuinely terrific, whether or not you’ve even heard of Brangelina.
All eight episodes of Mr. & Mrs. Smith begin streaming on Feb. 2 on Amazon Prime Video. I’ve seen the whole season.
From Rolling Stone US