"Mr. & Mrs. Smith," premiering Friday on Prime Video, offers Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in a series "inspired by" the 2005 Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie feature about married assassins who find themselves assigned to kill each other. Not surprisingly, it is much more a child of Glover's "Atlanta" than of the movie, and if you are more interested in glamorous thrills than scruffy human comedy you might find yourself disappointed — though perhaps pleasantly surprised.
Along with co-creators Glover and Francesca Sloane, "Atlanta" alumni at work here include producer Hiro Murai, who directs the pilot and an additional episode, and director of photograph Christian Sprenger, a declared favorite of this department, who also directs and has a talent for what one might call evocative clarity. (He calls it "controlled naturalism.") Like "Atlanta," it has a shaggy-dog quality, with a moderate interest in plot and a deep investment in mood and character. It is more fantastic than "Atlanta," which could be fairly fantastic, but just as ordinary, in the best way.
Glover and Erskine play the pseudonymous John and Jane Smith, strangers who, after individual job interviews with a computer terminal, find themselves paired in a "marriage" and lodged in a spiffy New York brownstone, where they wait for orders. These come by text, are as sketchy as a technical challenge on "The Great British Baking Show" and begin with a cheery "Hi Hi." Each is a sort of failure: John was discharged from the military ("I wouldn't call it dishonorable but they can call it whatever they need to"); Jane tried to get into the CIA ("They said I had antisocial tendencies").
"Nowhere else would take me," Jane admits.
"If it makes you feel any better, nobody would take me either," says John.
Because the Smiths know neither who they're working for nor the point of any of their assignments — which, unlike the Impossible Mission Force, they can only choose to accept, and which come with a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy — or if their targets are sinners or saints, there is for the viewer the initial business of reserving judgment on two people we are meant to like and feel for. To be sure, we've seen more than a few sympathetic assassins on the screen — including the movie Smiths — but here, strategically, we see the couple kill only (well, mostly) in self-defense or unknowingly. They get other kinds of jobs as well. We aren't being asked to love murderers.
Although Glover and Erskine are pretty people, they are not the avatars of supernatural Hollywood perfection that are Pitt and Jolie but rather a shinier version of the rest of us — recognizably normal, which suits the series just fine. (Although Glover got buff for the role, as we are regularly shown.) It's what sets it apart from other spy stories. John and Jane spend most of their time waiting, and while they wait, they talk, not only about work but bagels and cartoons and flatulence. It's a hangout thriller.
This is a story about secrecy and intimacy, cooperation and competition, affection and disaffection and sundry smaller and bigger challenges that will be familiar to most anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time. John and Jane clash over issues of control, jealousy and appreciation, even as they can be terribly sweet to each other. In action films, generally speaking, everything is subordinate to the plot. (And the stunts, and the gizmos.) Here, the emotional arc is what matters. Once James Bond was given feelings, there was nothing to do but kill off Daniel Craig.
Not that the action, which seems crafted to honor the genre, isn't impressive and exciting and marvelously executed. We get car chases, a subway pursuit, hand-to-hand combat. There are the classic Minding of a Difficult Prisoner (Ron Perlman) and a sequence set at a high-class art auction that puts Glover in a Bondean tuxedo and Erskine in a slinky red gown. We visit the snowy slopes of the Italian Dolomites, the banks of Lake Como, Italy, and various corners of New York City, where there are people to follow, run from or shoot back at.
The season is well stocked with first-rank guest actors, including John Turturro, Michaela Coel, Parker Posey, Paul Dano, Sharon Horgan, Sarah Paulson, Billy Campbell and Alexander Skarsgård. But the show belongs to Glover and Erskine, who play well together, in harmony and dissonance.
As ever, he's an amiable, interesting, low-key presence; his John is the more open of the two, gregarious, good with people (and he loves his mother). Jane is more guarded, which makes it especially moving to see her subtle brightening and growing vulnerability as the couple's fake relationship turns real. Previously best known for playing her middle-school self on "Pen15," Erskine is absolutely wonderful in the part, and one hopes for another season if only to keep that performance going.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.