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'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' are back — so are the fights and bewitching on-screen chemistry

Donald Glover and Maya Erskine star as John and Jane in <em>Mr. & Mrs. Smith.</em>
David Lee
Prime Video
Donald Glover and Maya Erskine star as John and Jane in Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

Deep into the run of the new Prime Video series Mr. & Mrs. Smith, John and Jane (Donald Glover and Maya Erskine), spies and partners, are partaking in a foot chase. You know, like couples do. She is all in black, in the manner of a classic operative on casual Friday: smart tailored pants, a tank top with a short jacket, practical flat shoes. A simple gold pendant glints under her throat, and her long, dark hair hangs loose. He is all in white: the snug pants of a guy who works out, and a close-fit turtleneck that looks so soft and luscious you could put a scoop of it on top of a slice of pie. His sandy, ankle-high shoes and handsome short beard are photo-shoot ready, but he is working.

They are running full-out, dodging pedestrians, then flying up sets of stairs. Their work is shady, so they evade the police. They pause now and then to fight when they have to, and then they go on.

It's cool.

It's not cool like great, not cool like nifty, not cool like terrific. It's cool like Cary Grant if he ever sprinted. Cool like Pam Grier, or like Steve McQueen without the bike, maybe Shaft if he had his own character-driven cable half-hour that raised eyebrows when the Emmys called it a comedy.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith was created by Glover with Francesca Sloane, a writer on Atlanta and Fargo, after the departure of his original collaborator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. As a side note, it's a fascinating exercise imagining what that version might have looked like, a joint venture between those two idiosyncratic talents who have both already had great success in signature projects that rely heavily on their singular voices. Unlike Sloane's, Waller-Bridge's career isn't linked to his; they would have met as something like industry equals. It's striking, and maybe a little bit darkly funny, that Waller-Bridge likened the collaboration to a marriage that didn't work out, given the premise. It's nice to hope no one got hurt, and given what a satisfying final project Glover and Sloane have created, easy to chalk it up to the complexities of partnering for a particular job. Sometimes it works out, sometimes you burn hot and then flame out, and sometimes you wind up ... well, wherever you wind up.

The series is loosely based on the 2005 film of the same name that's probably more famous as a chapter in the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie story than as a film. "Loosely," here, means that only the barest bones of the premise — "sexy married spies" — survive. In this version, John and Jane (Glover and Erskine) are strangers who have been matched by the secretive agency that employs them both, sending them on missions that they often don't even understand: they have to follow this person or deliver this package or tap that phone. Their names are not John and Jane Smith, but they have agreed to abandon their true identities and pretend to be a real married couple, an efficient pair that can work together for the benefit of their reclusive boss.

Some of the time, this is a mission-of-the-week show in which the backdrop for the adventure changes shape and the mood shifts. There are those chases on city streets, but there is also (how could there not be?) a fancy gala where they dress up and are impossibly glamorous. Red dress, check. Tux, check (with a twist, you'll see). There is a trip to a snowy paradise in the Italian Dolomites, so that they can ride a ski lift together, wear their hottest winter gear, and be colorful splashes on what look like endless white mountains. There's Lake Como. There had to be Lake Como, didn't there?

Mr. & Mrs. Smith also uses a specific idea to build each episode, as Atlanta does, rather than treating the season only as a segmented linear plot. One is structured around couples' therapy. One is a dinner party story where they meet and befriend another couple. There's an installment where Jane feels threatened by another woman in a couple of different ways, which plays out largely through their conversations with her.

It's an incisive — and sometimes sad — character study of these two messy people who take a quick liking to each other in the passionate, limited, fearful, lustful and precarious way that makes sense to them. It's not clear whether a healthy relationship can possibly happen for Jane and John, and it's certainly not clear whether having one would be a good idea.

Donald Glover as John Smith. "You lost your shirt."
David Lee / Prime Video
Prime Video
Donald Glover as John Smith. "You lost your shirt."

But even with the scenery and style, this is the engine of the show: the bewitching chemistry, which is sexy and comic but also dramatic and emotional, between Glover and Erskine. In a funny early scene when their attraction is new but evident, he appears without his shirt on, and she comments impassively: "You lost your shirt." A minute later, he starts nervously explaining why he doesn't have a shirt on, which takes away from his attempts to make it seem like he just happens not to have a shirt on.

He has been caught in a vulnerable moment of vanity that illuminates maybe the biggest difference between them when they're getting to know each other: they're both very attractive, but she doesn't preen at him the way he sometimes does at her; they approach attraction differently. He's cool but would prefer to be warm; she's cool but would prefer to be cold. It's an intriguing dynamic, and it shifts several times over these eight well-paced episodes. Who is confident and who is not, both in the relationship and at work, is a question that takes some smart turns.

Both stars slip smoothly into this mode, the action-romcom, even though it's different from their best-known work. Glover has played true goofballs (Community), and on Atlanta, his central character of Earn was uncertain and often ambivalent. John's slick layer of confidence, even though it covers insecurities and unrealized dreams, calls on different skills, as does the frequency with which you see him get in fights.

Erskine's breakthrough with mainstream (or mainstream-ish) audiences was PEN15, an inventive show in which she and Anna Konkle played 13-year-olds going through the pains of adolescence, surrounded by actually adolescent actors. A lot of the pain of PEN15 was driven by her awkwardness, her lack of cool. But Jane is constantly sneaking through houses and, yes, running through the streets, and Erskine seems at home here, too.

Alongside our main characters, you'll see a roster of guest stars in larger and smaller roles that rivals Poker Face for its marvelous abundance that's almost ostentatious: John Turturro, Michaela Coel, Sarah Paulson, Parker Posey! Sharon Horgan, Alexander Skarsgård! Ron Perlman! Paul Dano! It just keeps on going, and they all seem to be having a spectacularly good time. Dano, in particular, is an actor who can be sweet or wicked, and who can be creepy or winning, which makes him perfect for this story in which it's hard to say, ever, who anybody really is.

Maya Erskine plays Jane, who is not to be trifled with.
David Lee / Prime Video
Prime Video
Maya Erskine plays Jane, who is not to be trifled with.

What a delight to watch something smart and deeply felt that's also so fizzy and funny. And on top of that, it's stylish and great-looking. It's shot like the inventive prestige comedy-drama it often is; Hiro Murai, whose bona fides from Atlanta and Barryand The Bear couldn't be more persuasive, directs the first two episodes. But in the best way, it also looks a little like a cologne ad, or like a retro heist movie. You may come away moved or amused, and you may also come away trying to source John's cozy shawl-collared jacket.

It's hard to say whether they want a second season; the door is left open ... ish? It depends, perhaps, on your capacity for optimism. It won't be incomplete without one; that's the most important thing. It's the nature of partnerships, no? Sometimes they last, and sometimes they don't, and sometimes the book closes even though it could have continued. And that, too, can depend on whether you believe hard enough.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.