Photo: David Lee/Prime Video
In the lead-up to the release of the new Amazon Prime series Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the discourse has largely revolved around comparisons to the original movie. Doug Liman’s 2005 action comedy was, more than anything, a star vehicle for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, whose behind-the-scenes love story attracted massive tabloid attention. Witnessing their characters’ ever-present white-hot screen chemistry, it’s impossible to look away; individually and together, they feel superhuman, sustaining two hours of silly plotting with the sheer force of their charisma and beauty.
In some ways, it’s a fool’s errand to try catching lightning in a bottle twice. Any bar set by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is tough to clear; it’s natural to feel skeptical that Donald Glover and Maya Erskine, of all people, could pull it off, and I say that as a big fan of both. Still, recent coverage has made it clear that everybody involved, including co-creator and showrunner Francesca Sloane, is aiming for something different here. In a self-aware, open letter about the inherent silliness of rebooting Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Sloane expressed her desire to subvert the spy genre: “What would a series feel like if our heroes weren’t the two most beautiful people on the planet, but instead, were two lonely people, two underdogs, wanting more from life than what they currently had? What if our John and Jane could be anyone, could be you and me?”
With that in mind, the casting makes sense: This John and Jane Smith are hot, sure, but in a more accessible way. And they certainly draw less attention than living deities like Pitt and Jolie — though their espionage skills still leave a lot to be desired, based on this premiere.
But “First Date” begins with a different John and Jane Smith, settled in cozy domesticity at a remote cabin. These two are played by Alexander Skarsgård and Eiza González (speaking of hot people), and it seems like they’ve retired from the spy business without the permission of their mysterious employers. Unfortunately, the company isn’t forgiving; John and Jane are loose ends that still need to be tied up. By the end of the opening scene, they’re dead, shot down on their own property by armed men from the company. Before we’ve even met our real heroes, we’re seeing what could happen if they ever go rogue.
We meet our Mr. and Mrs. Smith during a montage showing their respective interviews with the same faceless entity who later gives them their assignments, always greeting them with a “hi-hi.” Both are willing to cut ties and relocate for work, though John is far more hesitant to leave his mom than Jane is to leave her dad. It’s easy to see why the company would pair them up; they have a lot in common, including antisocial and “emotionally unintelligent” qualities that kept them from advancing in the field. John spent some time in combat, operating drones in Afghanistan, and Jane almost made the cut for the CIA. They’ve both been in love before, but only John has ever expressed it out loud.
Their actual meet-cute happens at the gorgeous Manhattan brownstone where they’ll be living. The first day of marriage is appropriately awkward and logistical; there are new passports and documents to sort through, hidden gun cabinets to find, and a cat named Max to play with. “I guess we’re married now,” Jane says. A moment later, they exchange “nice to meet you”s. They don’t even have each other’s phone number yet.
Countless romantic comedies over the years have relied on the “fake dating” trope, and an arranged spy marriage definitely fits into that tradition. (In some ways, The Americans is the ultimate rom-com. Okay, not really.) And while it’s unclear how long it’ll take for the Smiths to catch real feelings, there’s already a hint that John is thinking along those lines. He’s friendly and flirtatious, while Jane is cool, professional, and secretive.
John and Jane both applied for high-risk spy work, but their first mission the next day seems tame at first: intercept a package from a woman at a café, then deliver it to the provided coordinates. (Jane suggests the company is just “easing them in.”) Sloane and Glover’s script smartly takes advantage of the simplicity of the plotting here, offering a kooky spy take on a traditional first-date sequence; John manages to convince Jane to open up about some basics since they’re married now, and the two get to know each other a little.
First, they follow their target to the park, then to a show at the Cherry Lane Theatre. While John speaks to Jane through her earpiece, she texts him the pancakes story she alluded to earlier: On a school trip to New York City when she was 14, a guy in his late 40s invited her and her friend to get pancakes. They went through with it, he paid the check, and they laughed after it was over. No harm done.
Their target leaves a few minutes into the show, picking up a heavy box from coat check and making a call on a burner phone she quickly tosses. Time is of the essence now, and Jane eventually manages to switch out the package with a box John grabbed from a mini-mall in Chinatown.
The Smiths complete the delivery, handing the package to some rich lady planning a big party. It turns out the mysterious package just contains a cake, bizarrely — except, of course, there’s a bomb inside that cake, and the house explodes moments after they leave. The show telegraphs all this a little too obviously, especially with the wide shot of John and Jane walking away with the house in the background. (“What if the house just blew up behind them?” I remarked to my roommate a split second before it happened.) It’s the exploding-house equivalent of a classic side-view car-crash shot.
John and Jane manage to evade police attention and make it safely home, where Jane learns that nine people were killed in the explosion. This mission was only the first of many, and they’ll surely only get more dangerous from here — but it’s still scary and intense enough to thaw any initial awkwardness between the newlyweds. In the final scene, John admits he lied earlier about having never killed anyone. In exchange, Jane offers an unusually vulnerable admission of her own: It was her friend who suggested they eat pancakes with the pedophile all those years ago. Jane was terrified the whole time.
“First Date” may contain only a few of the elements that made the original Mr. & Mrs. Smith memorable. For one, I’m still missing the original hook: two married assassins from competing agencies assigned to kill each other. I’m sure our John and Jane are keeping secrets from each other that will come into play as this show goes on, but there’s nothing like watching two assassins find out they’re also married to assassins.
Is this series just the latest in a trend of bloated, unnecessary TV reboots that go for naturalism and a prestige-y aesthetic over the delirious fun of a bright, goofy action comedy? It’s possible. If you’re in the mood to watch badass spies pulling off risky missions with precision and looking impossibly sexy while doing it, you’ll probably be disappointed by the inelegant brute-force tactics of the new Smiths. This is not your father’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith. It’s darker, messier, and far more “relatable.” Enjoying the show might depend on your willingness to just roll with it.
• Even I was bothered by Jane’s constant texting in the theater, so I appreciated the annoyed woman who asked, “Why did you bother coming?”
• This episode is called “First Date,” and it seems like other installments will offer their own parallels to traditional relationship milestones. It’s a smart structural conceit for the show.
First appeared on www.vulture.com