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In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, First Comes Love, Then Comes Espionage

Prime Video's reboot emphasizes the relationship between Donald Glover and Maya Erskine's lonely recruits over their spy work.
  • Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Photo: David Lee/Prime Video)
    Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Photo: David Lee/Prime Video)

    When it comes to Prime Video's Mr. & Mrs. Smith series, viewers would be wise to check their expectations at the bulletproof door. Creators Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane are less concerned with rebooting the 2005 film than remixing it entirely: They deemphasize the espionage to instead center the relationship between two lonely recruits, played by Glover and Maya Erskine, navigating the real emotions underpinning their fake marriage.

    In the most obvious departure from the film, John (Glover) and Jane Smith (Erskine) aren't rival spies, but employees paired up by their mysterious agency and given new identities as a married couple — "an old KGB tactic," Jane explains during their first mission, intended to "draw less attention" to their work.

    Like anyone who suddenly finds themselves in an arranged marriage (Sloane has said the action comedy is inspired by reality shows like Married at First Sight), they tread carefully around one another, though their differences serve as a natural barrier. Whereas Jane is "type A" with "antisocial tendencies," John is a people-pleaser who loves making conversation with strangers. They're united only by their attraction to the perks of their new job — and, the premiere suggests, their love of Korean barbecue — which pays them handsomely to execute "high-risk" missions and not ask questions along the way.

    John and Jane initially agree to keep things platonic, as they believe staying focused on the job will allow them to make enough money to eventually "part ways and live [their] own lives" (a suggestion from Jane that the more idealistic John reluctantly goes along with). But their sexual chemistry is too overwhelming to ignore, and soon, concerns about how best to extract a target or neutralize their enemies are replaced by moments that reveal their blossoming romance, and, as the season progresses, their mounting frustration.

    Bringing John and Jane's relationship to the forefront proves a winning strategy. Reducing the focus on their life-or-death work frees up Mr. & Mrs. Smith to establish a unique tone driven by their quirky hijinks and flirty banter, giving the show a lightheartedness that's often absent from spy thrillers. It also takes advantage of Glover and Erskine's comedy backgrounds: Playful mockery becomes a cornerstone of John and Jane's bond, and the actors' ability to riff off each other sells the idea that these two incredibly different people could actually be a good match. Glover and Erskine maintain that comedic foundation even as John and Jane's marriage begins to curdle, although they give their characters sharper edges as their mistrust and willingness to weaponize the other's vulnerabilities grows.

    But the espionage portion of the show is far from insignificant. John and Jane's missions deliver the kind of fast-paced, stylish action for which the film became known — they engage in shootouts in Lake Como and the Italian Dolomites, among other luxurious locales — and create the ideal conditions for talented actors, including Parker Posey, Wagner Moura, and John Turturro, to join in on the fun in one-off roles. (Mr. & Mrs. Smith's mission-of-the-week structure is reminiscent of Poker Face, which also made excellent use of guest stars.) The possibility of failure further heightens the stakes: Not only could the clumsy, inexperienced agents die at any moment, but they must contend with thinly veiled threats from "Hihi," their anonymous, all-knowing boss, about their lack of progress.

    Still, these episodic missions function primarily to advance John and Jane's relationship and explore the shifting power dynamic between them. An assignment in the jungle goes horribly wrong, but it prompts their first "I love you"s; later, they get stuck babysitting a whiny target, offering a window into what their life might look like with children and their divergent career goals.

    While work remains a huge source of conflict for John and Jane, as it illuminates their clashing worldviews and temperaments, the missions themselves become an afterthought. Some episodes skip over the violence (the hand-to-hand combat and extraction in the jungle is hardly shown) or incorporate it as vignettes, as is the case with the highly effective "Couples Therapy (Naked & Afraid)," in which John and Jane attempt to explain their issues to a therapist (Sarah Paulson) without revealing that they're spies. (They settle on pretending to be software engineers, leading to a series of funny scenes where Paulson's character struggles to figure out what John's asthma or their team "hunting" retreat has to do with computer coding.)

    But what really sets Mr. & Mrs. Smith apart is its emphasis on the small, hyper-specific moments that make up a marriage. Sloane and Glover give as much weight to John and Jane's decision to share their location with one another or Jane's first in-bed fart as their disagreement over having kids, creating an immediate sense of intimacy between the characters and the audience. Their awareness that relationships emerge, grow, and even turn sour in these in-between moments, not just the major milestones, lends the show a surprising authenticity and grounds what could easily have been a fantastical tale of attractive spies crisscrossing the globe with machine guns.

    Of course, zeroing in on the small things comes with its own set of risks. When John and Jane encounter a larger obstacle or turning point in their relationship, the show often struggles to put it in perspective and convey the gravity of the situation. As a result, some of these moments feel glossed over or rushed, like their first hookup, which is nowhere near as sexy as its stars' chemistry would suggest.

    These minor stumbles don't take away from an otherwise exciting, quick-witted season that serves as a showcase for Glover and Erskine's myriad talents. Mr. & Mrs. Smith is less about the spy work that brings John and Jane together than the connection that develops out of it — or as they acknowledge in the finale, "It was fake... but the sadness, it's real." The series succeeds by focusing on the feelings beneath the facade, making for the rare reboot that both pays respect to its source material and offers something wholly original.

    Mr. & Mrs. Smith premieres Friday, February 2 on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Amazon Prime Video, Donald Glover, Francesca Sloane, Maya Erskine, Parker Posey, Wagner Moura