The Dark Delights of a Millennial “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”

In the opening minutes of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”—Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane’s minor-key remix of the 2005 film starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as married, duelling assassins—the series symbolically obliterates its source material. An absurdly good-looking couple on the run decide to take a final stand, exchanging a passionate kiss as they prepare to face down their assailants. Both are immediately, unceremoniously gunned down. It’s there that the real show begins: one with dark humor and a distinctly millennial sensibility reflective of its co-creator and star. Where Brangelina’s characters were suburbanite yuppies with his-and-hers sinks, the new John (Glover) and Jane Smith (Maya Erskine) embody their generation’s emotional and economic malaise. Their mysterious firm recruits C.I.A. rejects, but the unsettling, tech-assisted impersonality of its approach leaves the pair closer to gig workers than government agents. Their job interviews are conducted by a machine; their duties are relayed through a chat box; and they never meet their handler, whom they nickname Hihi, after its preferred text greeting. In the wake of their first mission, Jane speculates about their employer, whose agenda remains unknown but whose indifference to collateral damage they’ve already witnessed. “Who cares? We get a plunge pool,” John says. “The way things are in the world right now, I’m happy we have a job.” In a different world, they might have been management consultants. In this one, their incuriosity makes them ideal minions—and, later, easy throwaways.

John and Jane meet for the first time after they have been “wed” by the company, inverting the premise of the original movie: the Smiths aren’t lovers who discover they’re both killers but killers who discover they’re in love. (In what might be a nod to FX’s “The Americans,” which centered on husband-and-wife Soviet agents, Jane notes that pairing up spies was a K.G.B. custom: “You draw less attention as a couple, and you’re less likely to defect if you’re reliant on a partner.”) Their aliases consign them to far too many hours alone together, and the show acknowledges that the kinds of people who sign up to lie for a living aren’t necessarily marriage material. John can be moody and insensitive; Jane’s longing for adventure—and need to impress Hihi—can tip into recklessness. But their fumblings toward genuine intimacy amid the trappings of a fake relationship make for some of the eight-part series’ best early scenes. Glover and Erskine—two hot nerds with comedy roots—render their characters believably prickly, awkward, and tender by turns. Though they have weapons and martial-arts training, there’s a civilian’s softness, too; they can’t get through an at-home body-disposal job without retching.

It would’ve been near-impossible to replicate the heat between Pitt and Jolie, whose real-life extramarital affair became part of the film’s marketing. Glover and Erskine have a convincing rapport, but their “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” leans less on sex appeal. The Prime Video remake also quickly establishes an eagerness to go somewhere edgier than a broad studio action-comedy might have dared—multiplex audiences of the mid-aughts may not have been ready for a subplot involving cannibal porn. And yet, compared with Glover’s previous series, “Atlanta” and “Swarm,” it’s a disarmingly straightforward show, with a case-of-the-week structure and playful takes on espionage tropes. For those of us allergic to exposition dumps about why some MacGuffin needs to be retrieved or delivered or destroyed, there’s a refreshing meaninglessness to the tasks handed down by Hihi. These quests also create the pretext for guest appearances from a murderer’s row of character actors, including Michaela Coel, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Sharon Horgan, and Parker Posey as a fellow-Jane. The inspired casting experiments and luxurious production values recall the Peacock crime dramedy “Poker Face.” Together, the two series may herald a new hybrid genre befitting the end of TV’s prestige era: the cinematic procedural, which returns to the simpler, more episodic plots of network-style programming but retains streaming’s lavish budgets.

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” uses its own budget to grand effect, indulging in spy stories’ penchant for glamorous escapism. John and Jane’s Manhattan brownstone is spectacular—and too expensive not to arouse the curiosity of their next-door neighbor (Paul Dano). The couple’s assignments take them to a ski resort in the Italian Dolomites and to a black-tie event where John, a proud clotheshorse, does his version of James Bond chic—though the fantasy is punctured when he realizes that, as one of the few Black men in attendance, he’d attract less attention by slipping in with the waitstaff. (He asks Jane to check his coat: “It’s Gucci.”)

In other respects, the show is decidedly of its moment. Jane rolls her eyes at a target’s use of “therapy-speak” and sends John flurries of anxious mid-mission texts; a plot point hinges on their readiness to share their locations on their iPhones. Such relationship milestones compound with implausible speed. During one assignment, John impulse-buys a vacation home on Lake Como as a romantic gesture. Jane soon finds that her “husband” is careless not only with money but with instructions from Hihi. The pair fail as often as they succeed, and they’re granted a limited number of fuck-ups. When John mentions the possibility of starting a family, Hihi seems to sense Jane’s dread. In their next conversation, it asks, with a chilly matter-of-factness, “Would you like to replace your John?”

The romance between John and Jane is too rushed for us to be swept up in it; when the inevitable betrayal arrives, the questions that obsess them about the authenticity of their relationship are ones we can answer ourselves. But the buildup of mutual resentment feels real, and there’s still poignancy to be mined from a less expected source: the couple’s fate as the pawns of a pitiless institution. Before taking the job, John had three hundred-odd dollars in his bank account, and Jane was estranged from her family; both gravitated toward “high-risk” work for a reason. If the show’s strains of romantic melancholy ring somewhat hollow, they’re eventually drowned out by something better: the blues of a spy with a debt he can never repay. ♦

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