The ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ Show Improves on the Movie — Really
If you were alive and consuming entertainment news in 2005, you may remember Mr. & Mrs. Smith as one of the year’s biggest stories. Actually, it was one of the previous year’s biggest stories, too, rumors having started swirling while it was still shooting about sparks between its stars, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. As we now know, those rumors proved true: Pitt’s then-wife Jennifer Aniston filed for divorce three months before the movie premiered, and the next year, Jolie was pregnant with Pitt’s child. (The less said about the dark end their story has come to, the better.) Curiosity about the project that could have split up an adorable Hollywood couple propelled Mr. & Mrs. Smith to huge box-office success, and in our risk-averse entertainment environment, that makes this almost-20-year-old title a comparatively safe one for a TV series remake.
Fortunately, no one involved seems particularly reverent about the original, so unlike many movie-to-series adaptations, this one doesn’t just demonstrate an understanding of how the medium works; it actually improves upon the source material.
In Prime Video’s series version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith — which drops all eight episodes of its first season February 2nd — a shadowy intelligence agency is recruiting operatives. After undergoing “interviews” with a computer screen that types out questions about their professional background, their food preferences, the number of people they’ve killed and their willingness to relocate, the members of our titular couple are matched, and meet up at a stunning Manhattan brownstone that many otherwise non-sociopathic viewers would readily kill for. “John” (Donald Glover) and “Jane” (Maya Erskine) start off as polite colleagues sharing the house but posing as a couple only while outside it; before long, however, the adrenaline highs and trauma bonds of their missions drive them into each other’s arms. Has their never-seen handler — they dub it “hihi” for its standard greeting — done an extraordinarily good job matching Jane and John based on their complementary and contrasting strengths, or are they marked for eventual implosion, so that their employers can see which one of them will prove to be the superior agent by emerging alone from their “marriage”?
Structurally, the Smith show immediately departs from the movie, in which John (Pitt) and Jane (Jolie) meet by chance, fall in love and only discover one another’s real line of work as international assassins when they’re both assigned to take out the same target. When they foil each other on that job, each is assigned to kill the other. It’s a good conceit for a movie, particularly once Jane and John are both given 48 hours to terminate each other. But what show creators Francesca Sloane and Glover, who formerly worked together on FX’s Atlanta, accomplish with their series concept is letting John and Jane get to know each other while we get to know them; and all of us figure out the parameters of the Smiths’ strange new job simultaneously. (There are a few nods to the film, as when the Smiths end up in couples therapy together.)
As anyone knows who got hooked on Alias or 24 — or, in earlier generations, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — spies make excellent protagonists for episodic TV. At regular intervals (once per episode, for instance!), they have a mission to achieve, which seems deceptively simple but requires crack timing, specialized skills or well-honed improvisational skills. In each mission, our leads learn something they can apply later in the season. Because the stars here are two gifted comedy performers — Glover in Atlanta, of course, but as a stand-up and sketch comedian before that; Erskine in PEN15, which she also co-created — their stories are closer to the Archer end of the TV spy spectrum than, say, The Americans.
That said, in the second episode, they end up having to get rid of a body in almost the same way the leads of The Americans did in one of that show’s extremely memorable Season Three episodes — Philip and Elizabeth used a suitcase, whereas Jane and John use a contractor’s bag — but only in Mr. & Mrs. Smith do the married protagonists both end up involuntarily retching and yelling at each other not to start them both actually puking. As the Smiths grow into their competence as spies, they also grow in intimacy together. Whereas the movie Smiths come across as supremely confident sex dolls, the TV Smiths can be messier — and stinkier. The longer time span episodic TV permits gives its Smiths a lot more opportunity to show all dimensions of their relationship, as opposed to just a few showstopping set pieces.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith is one of the first new series titles to launch on Prime Video since Amazon made ad insertions the default, in an attempt to gouge another $2.99 a month out of subscribers on top of their annual Prime memberships. Sloane and Glover should be just as furious about this as Expats creator Lulu Wang has said she is. Smith shot on location in New York and Italy, and the direction — including by Glover’s longtime Atlanta collaborator Hiro Murai — is stunning; for you to have to watch its beautiful landscapes and fancy guest stars (such as Parker Posey, John Turturro, Michaela Coel, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano) interrupted by ads for eczema medication is going to be a real bummer. It is, however, well worth pushing through the inconvenience to see its extremely charming leads as they banter, canoodle, fight and fart.