TV: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Maya Erskine plus Donald Glover plus spy series sounds like a slam dunk, especially considering how much additional creative talent the project boasts. But Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a sideways riff on the Brangelina film of the same name, turns out to be more of a curiosity than a must-see, ambition drowning out execution.

The premise is promising: two complete strangers join a clandestine, private-sector spy organization, only to be immediately matched as a married couple as part of their cover. “Jane” (Erskine) was a hopeful Central Intelligence Agency recruit whose failure there forced her into this plan B, while “John” (Glover) is ex-military, looking to apply his training in a lucrative new context. Initially, their arrangement is cagey as they figure out the job and each other, under the direction of an anonymous figure known as “hihi,” who conveys nebulous assignments via cryptic text. But eventually they fall in love and start to live their cover, even as the pressures of their stressful work threaten to drive a wedge between them.

Somewhere in Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a great show, but unfortunately it doesn’t escape. It’s a weird beast, gorgeously filmed in cinematic locations and capably performed, but ultimately distancing. Glover and Erskine are predictably great, of course, and scads of welcome guest stars show up during the course of their missions. Most fun are Wagner Moura and Parker Posey as a sketchy, more experienced couple who works for the same agency, but consider also the slew of big names who jump in to support: Michaela Coel, Paul Dano, Eiza González, Sharon Horgan, Ron Perlman, Sarah Pauls0n, Alexander Skarsgård, and John Turturro. Co-creator Francesca Sloane has written for Atlanta and Fargo, and the directing pool includes keen eyes like Hiro Murai and Amy Seimetz.

Surely with such a bounty of talent, the show should be brilliant. It is, instead…interesting? Weird? Tonally jarring? Despite enjoyable elements, there’s something dissatisfying about it, the vague impression of a neat idea not working in practice. The artistic concept, in brief: use the missions of spy-romance serial as metaphor for the trials and tribulations of an actual, relatable marriage. It takes a while for this playful  strategy to manifest; indeed, until Moura and Posey show up as dinner-date work friends, and then Paulson as an iffy marriage counselor, one can almost take it as a face-value spy show—a score on which it’s not particularly convincing, since the Smiths’ marital conflict requires them to be mostly incompetent at the work.  The show gets more interesting as it leans into its metaphor, elevating the pedestrian spy plots with subdued, slightly surreal dark-comedy aspects. On some level it reminded me, strangely, of The Americans, which also explores a marriage through spydom, but there the dramatic subtext was balanced with satisfying surface story. Mr. & Mrs. Smith doesn’t care about its surface story at all, despite intriguing nods toward a nefarious conspiracy that might have been worth exploring with more rigor. Instead, the show exists entirely in metaphor-land. Atlanta pulled off similar layering, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith is playing in a much more concrete genre, and without Atlanta’s powerful mission statement and unpredictable, first-rate surrealism, the effect is muted. It’s a unique experiment, for sure, and if nothing else is worth watching from Erskine and Glover, but ultimately, it feels like a theme in search of a narrative.

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