Amazon’s new much-hyped drama is ostensibly a remake of the 2005 movie of the same name, with then-married Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the height of their fame. In the film, they’re a suburban couple whose marriage is in the doldrums, and neither knows that the other is a spy. (The show acknowledges the film in a cold open with a couple who look vaguely like Brangelina, as their enemies close in on their remote cottage.)
The TV version immediately becomes more interesting (and plausible) by giving the premise one twist: John (Donald Glover, who co-created the series with Atlanta writer/producer Francesca Sloane) and Jane (Maya Erskine, best known for playing her 13-year-old self on PEN15) each know the other is a spy. But that’s about all they know about each other. Both of them are loners looking to start over, so they volunteer for a mission that involves pretending to be married. (Or not pretending, given they’re handed rings and a marriage certificate along with their tastefully furnished apartment.)
So the crux of the show isn’t that they’re at odds or keeping secrets from each other. It’s that these two charming, attractive people aren’t sure how close they should get to each other, or even if they can entirely trust their new spouse. It’s less about secrets and lies than it is about knowing how much to divulge, how much to open up, and exactly how much of this fake relationship is real.
We get very little detail about what their mission actually is (Jane and John barely get more info than we do), but that works in the show’s favor. The best TV shows understand that the premise, no matter how high-concept and clever, is just a scaffolding to build what the show’s really about. The Sopranos isn’t really about the mafia, it’s about how people don’t really change. Steven Universe isn’t really about an interstellar war, it’s about how empathy can repair emotional pain. And as the episode title suggests, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is less about spying than it is about relationships. Everyone wonders if we really, truly know our partners, especially in the early stages, and the premise simply serves to amp things up — their relationship starts at less than zero, and the secrecy surrounding their jobs means they have no one but each other.
That being said, the spy stuff works. There are some good tense moments, and the fact that both the Smiths and the audience are kept in the dark about exactly what they’re doing and why leads to some effective surprises. And director Hiro Murai (who co-created Atlanta with Glover) expertly juggles the shifts in tone between life-and-death intrigue and a new couple wandering around New York. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith only has to keep it going for eight episodes.
• Phoebe Waller-Bridge was initially cast as Jane, before leaving in pre-production, citing creative differences with Glover. Much as we love PWB in everything, Maya Erskine feels like a better choice. Her Jane is a little withdrawn, which makes her hard to read, which in turn suits the character and the premise; Waller-Bridge’s prickly intelligence would have made for a very different dynamic and a different show.
• After the not-Brad-and-Angie cold open, we get an intro where the couple are being sized up for the mission by a faceless set of questions on a screen. We keep flashing back to Jane’s answers, learning that she was very happy to erase her past (which included work for the CIA), cut ties with everyone she knew before, and take on a dangerous mission. We don’t get flashbacks for John (apart from an acknowledgement that he had killed people in Afghanistan), and his motivations are more opaque, but maybe we’re saving that for next week.
• The show is often listed online as a comedy, or comedy-drama, and it’s very emphatically not that. Both leads are exceedingly charming and each has a wry sense of humor, but it’s a drama in which the two leads occasionally make each other laugh.
• Every episode of the series was released en masse on February 2. We’ll try and stick to a twice-weekly schedule for these reviews.