Meet the Smiths. Her name’s Jane, a name frequently partnered with the word plain; his name’s John, like in a John Doe, or a Dear John letter. These are commonplace and indistinctive names, names made to blend in wherever they go, names that will not arouse suspicion on a business card or when called out in a coffee shop. It’s this thinking that led Ian Fleming, hunting for an unremarkable name for his secret agent, to borrow in from the American ornithologist James Bond. Fleming called it “the dullest name I ever heard”. Yet dullness does not leap to mind at the mention of Bond.
Over the years, many attempts have been made to imbue the Smiths with a touch of danger—and they’ve all shared the same name. In 1941, Alfred Hitchcock made a comedy with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery called Mr & Mrs Smith, which, despite its provenance, did not feature guns or spies. In the mid-1990s, a TV show of the same name starred Scott Bakula and Maria Bello as secret agents who don’t get along and are forced to partner together. In 2005 came the most famous Mr & Mrs Smith, the film that threw together Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, casting the inflammably attractive actors as rival assassins who just happen to be married. The only thing we can say about Mr & Mrs Smith, in fact, is that each version is different.
The latest iteration—created by Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane, streaming on Amazon Prime Video—is also a spy series, but that’s where the similarity ends. In this well-tailored comedy about espionage and marriage, Maya Erskine and Glover play strangers, two recent recruits to a mysterious spy agency, thrown together much like in an arranged marriage: from their differing answers, the only immediate common ground is a love for Korean cuisine. Every episode brings a new mission and an upgrade in their domestic dynamic.
The result feels like a cross between The Americans, one of TV’s great dramas with KGB agents living in deep cover during the Cold War, married for years, and Charlie’s Angels, where a mysterious speakerphone voice would give well-dressed heroines their mission for the week. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how well that unlikely combination would work together, and Mr & Mrs Smith makes for one helluva peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Sitcoms routinely explore chalk-and-cheese marriages, but this show—where the marriage isn’t real per se, but may as well be—seems to be exploring an arranged marriage, where these two are getting to know each other, learning the ropes after having already signed up. The early missions are tentative—the first two episodes are titled First Date and Second Date—with our young couple still feeling each other out while delivering explosive packages or accidentally murdering a target. “Did you forget a shirt?” asks Jane, when John wanders bare-chested into her bedroom “to say goodnight”, and later when deciding on something, Jane deadpans, “I love compromising, I really do”—before not giving an inch.
She loves an everything bagel first thing in the morning, he likes to skip breakfast. It all feels a bit on the nose, but the show is lifted by stylish and genuinely cinematic action sequences and—most importantly—by the charm and unpredictability both actors bring to their mercenary characters. Erskine’s Jane is sharp and professional and (mostly) no-nonsense, to the point of being hard to keep up with. She was great in the absurdly unique Pen15, and looks equally at home in this grown-up new world of assassinations and double agents.
Glover, who made the groundbreaking series Atlanta, is having an infectiously good time letting his hair down with this significantly frothier series. His John has an all-encompassing love for couture—“I would never joke about fashion,” he gasps, horrified—and his chemistry with Erskine is an easy, friendly one, one born more out of blood and banter than out of immediate pheromones. These two characters may not have glamour of Pitt and Jolie, but they sure have more laughs.
The series serves up guest stars in each episode—Sharon Horgan, Ron Perlman, Parker Posey, Wagner Maura, Michaela Coel—and each of them gets a meaty enough part to have genuine fun with. The great John Turturro, for instance, gets a role that I could only really describe as doggy-style, and Sarah Paulson is superb as a therapist prying into the Smith family life. These fine and eclectically chosen performers bring more unpredictability to the proceedings. As in marriage, we never quite know where our Jane and John are headed.
Mr & Mrs Smith is modern, hip and, perhaps most importantly, casual. Obviously spies today surely would text each other, for instance, but I’ve never before wondered whether these communications would include emojis. This show surprises in delightful ways—like with a truly, truly excellent fart joke —and gives us a lot to love with these unlikely romantic leads, messy enough to be worth rooting for. In that way the show also borrows from the conversational breeziness of Master Of None (Netflix) and the mercenary conflicts of Barry (JioCinema), all while basically serving up comfort TV.
Maybe more marriages need missions to bind couples together. Or more lies. At the start of the series, Glover’s character is asked for his height, and he immediately replies that he’s 6ft tall. “5ft, 11 inches,” he then immediately corrects himself, remorseful. To me, this felt too tall for the Community actor, and so I looked it up: Glover is 5ft, 9 inches. This may merely be the creator casting himself in flattering light, but hey. Nothing wrong with a spy series that begins with a double bluff.
Mr & Mrs Smith, directed by Doug Liman, is a tremendously entertaining—and rousingly sexy—film featuring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the height of their allure. The two dig violently—and gamely—into each other, and their combined screen presence is a thing to behold.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.