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Odd Couple

The Low-Key Pleasures of Mr. and Mrs. Smith

If the 2005 film relied on explosive star power, the new TV version works harder for its payoffs.

Maya Erskine and Donald Glover in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”
David Lee/Prime Video/Amazon MGM Studios
Maya Erskine and Donald Glover in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”

The 2005 blockbuster Mr. and Mrs. Smith doesn’t just feel like it’s a document from another time; it feels almost imaginary. It’s a movie that seems like it happened, sure, but if you told me right now that, in fact, there never was a movie starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as rival spies, that the filming of that movie was not the catalyst for the breakup of Pitt and then-wife Jennifer Aniston, and that all the slickly produced fight scenes and wry couples therapy two-shots I thought I remembered seeing back then were all just an elaborate Mandela effect providing a convenient origin story for Brangelina, I would certainly consider it a possibility. It’s a time capsule too tidy to be real. 

But, I must inform you, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is very real. I think part of the reason this film has such a mythical air to me is that it is the sort of film that’s very hard to imagine existing today. It’s lithe and snappy, fluent with its stunts but not distractingly so. The jokes land, but they’re basically all just varied restatements of the film’s premise. For its time, the film’s $110 million budget was high though not obscenely so (X-Men: The Last Stand cost nearly a hundred million more in 2006). But it’s neither the budget nor the genre that makes it stand out—the expensive A-list action-comedy has never really waned as an object of studio desire, even in the streaming era. Instead, it’s the stardom that marks it as either the historical product or the half-remembered fever dream of a bygone era.

To put it simply, this is a movie with two genuine, big-ticket, gossip-magnet, matinee idol movie stars in it. They are the sole reason why the film exists and the sole reason it works when it does. We marvel as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bring the raw power of their celebrity personas to the screen, we gaze in awe as the proximity of their stars produces a nuclear reaction, we leer as one of the greatest gossip stories of the new millennium unfolds live onscreen. What if two of the biggest movie stars on the planet fell in love, and we got to watch a documentary account of it with explosions and dance numbers and Vince Vaughn shouting one-liners? Watching Mr. and Mrs. Smith is like watching the idea of a film transform into its actuality right in front of your eyes. It’s a form of movie magic as old as the pictures themselves. Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney could never.  

All of this is what makes Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane’s new Amazon Prime series based on that original alchemical miracle such a strange and funny animal. The premise of the new Mr. and Mrs. Smith seems to be: What if we kept the high production values and easy self-evident self-aware jokes, but, instead of casting two of the most electric movie stars of their generation, we cast some other people instead? I must inform you that this show is also very real. While the new show lacks the extratextual spectacle of the original, while stars Glover and Maya Erskine do not waltz onscreen radioactive with the aura of fame, while the show has to run on its own energy rather than the wattage generated by its cast, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a smart, well-made, thoroughly charming piece of work. 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a feat produced by the sorcery of a pair of movie stars of old; 2024’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith asks what the same story would be like if you had to really work for it.

In the 2005 film, John and Jane Smith are a boring married couple living out a sexless, if elegant, existence in cookie-cutter suburbia. Their secret is that they are both highly trained spies and assassins. But the twist upon that twist is that both Smiths think that their spouse is their normie cover story, a picture-perfect suburban beard designed to camouflage them to the eyes of their many foes. The film kicks off when this mutual subterfuge is exposed and the Smiths are pitted against each other in a duel to the death. It’s a fairly straightforward metaphor for a relationship and one that, not for nothing, has often been explored in other media, most notably on FX’s The Americans, an epic poem about the cruelty and intimacy of partnership starring (also!) real-life partners Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

Glover and Sloane’s show is neither that original film, nor is it The Americans, but it certainly lives in their long shadow. We meet our new Smiths (Glover and Erskine) at the beginning of their careers as covert operatives. Unlike Pitt and Jolie—but much like Rhys and Russell—Glover and Erskine are both in on the act from the jump. Paired together by a mysterious, faceless corporation whose only voice is a screen-based chat intermediary our spies playfully call “Hihi”—after the ingratiating greeting that begins all their interactions—the two are given wedding bands, sketchily believable backstories, and a stunning Brooklyn townhouse filled with deadly weapons. Their early interactions are alternately awkward and mercenary, setting up a base dynamic in which John (Glover) is intrigued by, even longing for, the possibility of a relationship and Jane (Erskine) perceives their union as a necessary expedient to the work. Eventually—actually, fairly quickly—both positions soften, and we’re left going on adventures with a pair of frisky newlyweds who are also cold killers.

Each episode pairs both a new mission from Hihi—often in jet-setting locales like Lake Como, Italy—and a new wrinkle in the couple’s relationship. One episode, for instance, in which the Smiths have to deal with the care, feeding, and kidnapping of an obstinate, tantrum-prone billionaire (Ron Perlman) doubles as an episode about John and Jane arguing over the possibility of having kids. They do joint missions with new couple friends, their early inability to communicate in the bedroom leads to somebody getting killed and dismembered, there’s even an entire episode that takes place in the office of a couples therapist. Because the show takes advantage of this currently fashionable case-of-the-week structure—which we’ve seen in everything from Poker Face to The Last of Us, recently—it also means that the show is teeming with high-value target cameos. Alexander Skarsgård, Parker Posey, John Turturro, Sharon Horgan, and Sarah Paulson all show up in one-off arcs, replacing the sheer celebrity amplitude of Pitt and Jolie with the fuel-efficient charge of the prestige TV company players.

But the guest stars can’t, and don’t have to, carry the load that our Smiths must carry as the psychosexual heart of the series. As they zip through tightly choreographed, surprisingly gripping action sequences, get themselves out of scrapes with the liberal use of gory, slapstick violence, and deal with all the other things regular couples deal with, the show glides on Glover and Erskine’s easy chemistry. There’s a light layer of millennial satire about the proceedings—lots of anxiety and ambition, entitlement and emotional fragility—but it’s never overplayed or obvious. Beyond even the tradecraft of it all, this show is a funny, sharp, thoughtfully sketched series about two thirtysomethings making their way through the triumphs and embarrassments of the gig economy. I wrote last year about how some of the best contemporary TV is also emotionally punishing, a gauntlet of trauma and tears for viewers to pass through. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, on the other hand, is just a whole lot of fun.

The core of celebrity, whether it’s Rita Hayworth or the Kardashians, Elvis Presley or Taylor Swift, is the balancing of inaccessibility and intimacy. These people are godlike, unknowable, unfathomable. Their private lives are jealous secrets, and their true selves are locked away in some inception-proof room inside their private minds, perhaps only revealed to their closest companions if they’re revealed at all. And yet, celebs are just like us after all: They love and lose and rise and fall. They can’t be so distant that they feel alien, nor can they be so close that they feel ordinary, unremarkable. Pitt and Jolie exemplified this duality, their perfect faces and messy love lives mutually reinforcing each other.

Glover and Erskine don’t bring the complexity of massive global star images to bear on their Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Erskine is most well-known for playing a 13-year-old version of herself on the hilariously uncomfortable Pen15, which she co-created with Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman. Glover is certainly more famous than Erskine, but the status of his celebrity is somewhat ambivalent. The media scholar Brandy Monk-Payton describes Glover’s public persona as a “creative chimera,” prioritizing his ability to move fluidly between multiple fields and roles—behind the camera, in front of the camera, onstage, offstage in film, television, and music—rather than cornering one particular area. As a result, he’s a well-known actor, a well-known musician, and a respected writer, but he’s not exactly a movie star. 

If any aspect of this show has any extratextual juice to it, it might well be that it’s the star origin story of Maya Erskine. This show is Erskine’s first real lead role in which she plays an adult; on Pen15 she was perennially clad in braces and a bowl cut. Glover is cool and vulnerable—his actorly specialty—and he’s a great scene partner, but it’s Erskine who steals this show. She can be deadpan or doofy, a credibly competent assassin and a bundle of insecurity, the starstruck little sister figure in relation to Parker Posey’s radiant screen presence or an elegant simulacrum of Jolie herself, sipping champagne among the elite at a silent auction. But Erskine’s not just notable here for her facility at performing her character’s multiple contradictory performances; the power of her work in this show is its mystery. John’s neediness is only interesting if his Jane seems both willing and unable to give in to his emotional needs, if she seems always genuinely torn between her desire to kiss and kill him. Erskine is able, incredibly, to remain intimate and inaccessible, just like us and nothing like us. It’s a great performance, but it’s just the sort of thing killers, and stars, do.