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Donald Glover and Maya Erskine Improve on the Original

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The 2005 blockbuster “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is better remembered as tabloid fodder than a film, and for good reason; an explosive, adulterous romance between two A-list movie stars (future spouses Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) would overshadow even a masterpiece. And the movie, while financially successful, is no masterpiece. Jolie and Pitt played married assassin-spies pitted against one another, but screenwriter Simon Kinberg mostly mined this premise for stale jokes about suburban boredom, leading to a battle of the sexes based on gendered stereotypes. The Smiths’ actual relationship never came into focus, instead serving as a setup for action set pieces and comedic contrast between the characters’ deadly professions and seeming domestic bliss. 

This makes “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” a prime candidate for the reimaginings that make up an ever-increasing portion of Hollywood’s output. Many of these projects are doomed attempts to plumb a well that’s long since run dry. But “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” left plenty on the table when it left multiplexes nearly 20 years ago, and a new television series makes a convincing case the film’s concept has always been better suited for another medium entirely.

“Atlanta” auteur Donald Glover has been attached to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” since 2021, when the show was announced as a partnership with “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The pairing suggested a dynamic reminiscent of Pitt and Jolie: two intimidatingly sexy stars with action franchise experience playing hypercompetent professionals. But Waller-Bridge soon departed the project over creative differences, with “Pen15” star Maya Erskine stepping into the role of Mrs. Smith. Erskine may voice a hardened warrior on “Blue Eye Samurai,” but the actor and comedian is still best known for playing an overgrown middle schooler with a bowl cut. As a secret agent, she’s hardly typecast.

That counterintuitive take on the central setup proves crucial to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which is more melancholy and minor-key than its logline may suggest. Married spies — or rather, espionage as a metaphor for marriage — was previously the basis for “The Americans,” the revered FX series that could make for a tough act to follow. But Glover and co-creator Francesca Sloane, a former writer on “Atlanta,” deliver a drastic departure from a historical drama based on a real-life Soviet spy program. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is distinctly contemporary, from the charmingly awkward, mumblecore-adjacent banter between Glover and Erskine’s John and Jane to the luxuriously appointed New York townhouse where they’re stationed. (From the built-in arches to the houseplants, the vibe is “millennial Pinterest board.”) It’s also highly conceptual, bordering on the surreal. From the moment John and Jane conduct their job interviews with a faceless screen in a nondescript office building, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” feels more like “Black Mirror” than “Mission: Impossible.” The Smiths get their orders from a Siri-like chatbot they call Hihi, after its opening salutation, while David Fleming’s spare electronic score gives the proceedings a futuristic feel.

Where the movie made John and Jane’s occupations a separate — and secret — pursuit, this couple begins as a professional partnership. John and Jane Smith are assumed identities provided by the Company, the mysterious private agency that also owns their house. (Not to be confused with “the Company” as a nickname for the CIA.) We don’t know who John and Jane were before their new gig, or why the Company tasks them with specific missions like dropping off a package or dosing a target with truth serum. All we have to go off of is what the soon-to-be spouses tell their prospective employer. John has a military background, Jane intelligence. John’s been told he’s “emotionally unintelligent,” Jane she’s “numb and manipulative.” They both like Korean barbecue. Maybe that’s why they’re paired together — or maybe, Jane speculates, it’s because “you attract less attention as a couple, and you’re less likely to defect if you’re reliant on a partner.”

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” boasts a deep bench of guest stars. One of the first faces we see belongs to Alexander Skarsgard; Paul Dano, Parker Posey and Sharon Horgan soon join the party, among others. Yet the series is tightly focused on John and Jane, to the point where detours to glamorous destinations like Lake Como and luxury ski resorts barely register as changes in backdrop. Our attention remains on what’s happening in the foreground: John and Jane’s inevitable transition from marriage as a cover story to a real relationship that happens to have life or death stakes. 

Horgan’s presence invokes her work on “Catastrophe,” another show that hinged on two relative strangers thrown into a long-term commitment almost by accident. (Where John and Jane are thrown together by a third party, Horgan’s character got pregnant from a casual fling.) Along with “You’re the Worst” and “Lovesick,” “Catastrophe” was part of a spate of shows in the 2010s that reconceived the romantic comedy — then moribund at the box office — for a more extended format. Over eight episodes, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” reveals itself to be part of this ongoing effort, and becomes another example of its core insight: that television’s larger canvas offers a chance to explore relationships in depth and over time.

After “Atlanta” and “Swarm,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” marks a pivot away from the music industry for Glover and his longtime collaborators, including pilot director Hiro Murai. But as the season unfolds, the show starts to show a structural similarity with Glover’s breakout. “Atlanta” presented itself as two cousins’ hardscrabble climb up the ladder of the music industry, only to start taking their ascent for granted; major milestones happened offscreen, while the plot zeroed in on smaller scenarios. At first, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” shows John and Jane fumbling their way from hapless rookies to seasoned operators. Soon, though, it becomes clear that months are passing between episodes. John and Jane allude to exotic locales we never see and daring exploits we never witness. The spy stuff, we start to understand, is almost incidental.

Instead, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” names its episodes for benchmarks like “First Date” and “First Vacation.” As John and Jane move from tentative flirtation to infatuation to settled item, they find themselves in fairly common situations: bonding over their disdain for another couple; trading notes on their childhoods; discovering they may have different priorities. Both Glover and Erskine hail from comedic backgrounds, and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” mines some laughs from the gap between the title characters’ yuppie appearance and lethal jobs. (The pair’s go-to lie is that they’re software engineers, a bit that grows more unconvincing every time they mumble something about “code.”) But the default mode of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is less humorous than allegorical. The violence doesn’t undercut the emotion; it heightens the drama.

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” takes place in a world where one can travel from the tropics to Manhattan in a single helicopter ride, as John and Jane do on one particularly harrowing assignment. Yet it also feels real, especially as Jane starts to feel more committed to the work as John wonders what else he may want out of life. They’re the kind of arguments that happen around many kitchen tables, though rarely ones with a stash of firearms a few feet away. With a few extra hours of runtime, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” builds John, Jane and their relationship into something worth caring about. This version may not make as many headlines as its predecessor, but it stands up far better to scrutiny.

All eight episodes of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” will stream on Amazon Prime Video on Feb. 2.

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