For those of us old enough to remember the dawn of this wretched century, the title Mr. and Mrs. Smith probably triggers the idea of wildly intense costar chemistry.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s 2005 film of the same name famously ignited a firestorm of cultural obsession and gave the world “Brangelina,” after the two leads became an item around the time that the movie was shot. The film’s existence became inseparable from the Hollywood couple that it spawned, so much so that a remake seemed inconceivable. Good luck to the pair of actors who would take up the titular roles; recreating a spark so electric that millions of people believed your predecessors fell in love on set is like trying to bottle lightning a second time—it was already a miracle that it happened once.
Unless, as it turns out, you’re Donald Glover and Maya Erskine, who star in Prime Video’s version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, streaming Feb. 2. The series—which is based on the 2005 film but is far closer to the short-lived 1996 TV show—finds the two actors playing house together in a luxurious apartment in New York. John (Glover) and Jane (Erskine) Smith might look like your average thirty-something Silicon Valley transplants, funneling their tech money into an outrageously expensive metropolitan lifestyle. But they’re simply playing to their cover: This newly married couple have never even met before when they wind up inside the same townhouse one afternoon, sent there after being contracted for high-risk espionage by a mysterious company.
But you wouldn’t know that by watching them. Erskine and Glover have some of the most blissfully natural chemistry seen on screen, in any capacity, in a hot second. And that’s the idea: John and Jane have to fool their neighbors and everyone that they come into contact with. But the show’s pair of leads make that task look effortless and completely graceful. Glover and Erskine’s alluring rapport is the reason to come to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but it’s also the show’s adhesive. Whenever the drawn-out, episodic missions threaten to drag, the actors snap the series right back into place, keeping this iteration of the Smiths a delightful, darkly funny couple to fall head over heels for.
That appeal isn’t entirely the work of Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s fabulous leads, either. The series, which was co-created and co-written by Glover and Francesca Sloane, is both stylish and surprisingly sharp. Some modern, recent spy stories have failed to make their characters human under all of that cunning, but John and Jane are not simply a pair of wooden figurines to move around a map of exotic locales with each mission; they’re complete three-dimensional, their motivations, needs, wants, and interests all dexterously doled out throughout the series’ eight-episode season.
How smart of Glover and Sloane to make that personality so palpable, given that the show hinges on viewers becoming attached to the Smiths. In the opening sequence, another John and Jane (played by Alexander Skarsgard and Eiza González Reyna, in the first of many recognizable guest spots and cameos), are hunted down in their rural, off-the-grid cabin. We quickly realize that whatever company is calling the shots in the Smith program doesn’t take kindly to defectors. As Skarsgard and Reyna’s John and Jane share one last kiss before their untimely demise, we can only hope that the same fate won’t befall the program’s newest recruits.
Erskine and Glover’s Jane and John assure each other that things won’t get anywhere near as bad. They might be strangers with a legally binding marriage certificate, shacked up in a townhouse that oozes erotic ambiance (exposed brick will get anyone going), but they don’t plan to have sex with one another, let alone fall in love. That is, of course, a nearly impossible pact to keep when you find yourself sharing a spot with someone in the line of fire. Even on their first stakeout, John and Jane can’t help but get to know each other a little better, their wit and casual comeliness making both of them irresistible—especially to the audience.
“It’s an old KGB tactic,” Jane tells John in the pilot episode. “If you have a partner, you’re less likely to defect.” That might’ve been true for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans, but this couple of spies isn’t so patriotic. They’re more committed to their own interests, which quickly meld thanks to Glover and Erksine’s utterly beguiling magnetism. Watching them converse is akin to eavesdropping on a successful third date; two like minds, falling for each other in real time. Their dialogue is bouncy and organic, so cleverly written that a good chunk of their private interactions feel as if they were improvised. It’s rare that a spy series can be this compelling when there’s no mission afoot, but watching this couple stroll around a farmer’s market or flirt over a morning bagel sandwich is downright gripping.
There are, however, some occasional snags in this formula. Mr. and Mrs. Smith isn’t so light on its feet when it makes the transition between romance and reconnaissance in each episode. These 42-minute episodes could stand a shave down to a cool 35 to keep things chugging along, without losing any of its hard-won charisma. These slower moments momentarily remove the viewer from the episode’s rhythm, a disappointing footnote to an otherwise thrilling reimagining. But even in these moments, it maintains an engaging fluidity that plenty of other series aren’t sporting, thanks to the writers’ talent for picking up the pace and Erskine and Glover’s believable performances.
We already know that Donald Glover is a great talent. He maintains those charms here, with a soft-spoken sexiness that any silver screen leading man would kill for. But it’s Erskine who is the show’s undeniable breakout. Her Jane is cheeky and amusingly morose. Erskine is particularly good at wearing a spy’s mask; even when she’s telling the truth, there’s a sense that there’s a deeper story, meaning, or underlying agenda there. Having already proven that she’s a preternatural comedic talent with dramatic chops to boot in the two impeccable seasons of Pen15, Erskine is primed for a major Hollywood breakthrough. If her work in Mrs. and Mrs. Smith is any indication, she deserves it.
It’s not just the two stars who elevate the series. A collection of cleverly cast cameos put in the work as well. Familiar faces like Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Michaela Coel, Parker Posey, and more keep the show—and its audience—from being sucked into the doldrums of tedium. But it’s Erskine who viewers will stay for, watching as she sprinkles shrewd barbs here and fires some gunshots there. That proprietary mix of action and comedy is a joy. The show doesn’t pack itself with undercooked laughs; the writers understand that this dark, pragmatic humor is more effective in smaller, well-timed doses. This dramedy makes for a charming watch that not only meets the chemistry in Brangelina’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but exceeds it for a great, gunslinging escapade.