clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ and the Death of the Black Prestige TV Bubble

Donald Glover’s new Amazon show isn’t ‘Atlanta.’ But as “peak TV” dies, we aren’t getting any more shows like ‘Atlanta,’ anyway. What does ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ say about the era we’re leaving—and the one we’re entering?

Prime Video/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Perhaps the most telling—if cynical—part of Amazon’s new Mr. & Mrs. Smith series occurs in the opening minutes of the second episode. Over bagels and lox, Maya Erskine’s Jane asks Donald Glover’s John what inspired him to go down the path of high-risk espionage and 40-hour-a-week drudgery. In his winking and meta way, Glover simply responds “money,” as the couple laugh, knowing there’s rarely another answer.

For almost two decades, this hyper self-awareness has been Glover’s signature. Mr. & Mrs. Smith revels in a mischievous and playful hubris. Glover knows that you know about his lucrative, eight-figure deal with the Bezos behemoth. Just like he understands that Donald and Maya aren’t Brangelina, and that a show originally meant to star Phoebe Waller-Bridge before Erskine joined is the type of discourse machine few creators can stoke.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and by extension Glover, feels caught between two eras of TV struggling to coexist. On paper, Glover’s and co-creator/showrunner Francesca Sloane’s show nestles nicely into Amazon’s growing portfolio of four-quadrant, IP-spy thrillers. It’s a remake of a beloved 2005 movie, starring two darlings of the prestige TV era with a cast of supporting players—Paul Dano, Michaela Coel, Alexander Skarsgard, Sarah Paulson, Ron Perlman—that’d put most comparable programming to shame. Its ballooned budget is so tastefully deployed across its wardrobe and locales that it feels like a sentient Instagram feed of those vacation girls Drake is always complaining about.

Like Atlanta before it, Mr. & Mrs. Smith lives and dies by the audacity of its swings. If Brad and Angelina’s original was pitching the rebirth of domestic bliss as aspirationally sexy, the reboot’s vision is more earnestly sober. Amazon’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith asks the type of questions—Can love survive the gig economy? How much of ourselves do we lose in an interracial relationship? How many times is it socially acceptable to call your mom on a given day?—that can make couples therapy feel like a lobotomy. In other words, it’s a Donald Glover show.

Eight years ago, the novel proposition of Atlanta was that it was in constant conversation with the hyper-online and underrepresented Black spaces it mined for inspiration. In the deflating final days of the Obama era, a convergence of multiple factors—Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement, streaming wars—meant white America had a lot of time and money to spend on Black art that was deemed “important” and also made them feel good.

Careers were minted. Creatives turned mogul. A generation of Black showrunners became recognizable by one half of their name: Glover, Issa, Rhimes, Waithe, Carmichael. We were inundated with a bounty of great art (and just as much schlock) with no sign of an end.

Then the pandemic struck, and soon the entire era of “peak TV” came under scrutiny. The white guilt and easy PR born from 2020 protests and social movements could only last so long in Hollywood, a place where the illusion of change is usually mistaken for the real thing. “Prestige” shows began to fade. Shows like Lovecraft Country, Them, and Love Life came and went without securing the same type of rabid fan bases that Atlanta and Insecure could boast (and even those shows were never ratings juggernauts).

The 2023 Hollywood strikes didn’t help matters. In November, returning Disney CEO Bob Iger said the quiet part out loud when he declared, “We have to entertain first. It’s not about messages.” The not-so-subtle jab at diversity as the main culprit for Disney+’s stagnation arrived right on schedule. A couple months later, Issa Rae acknowledged what this prevailing new Hollywood order meant for the darkest people in the room. “You’re seeing so many Black shows get canceled, you’re seeing so many executives—especially on the DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] side—get canned,” Rae told Net-A-Porter. In January, Rap Sh!t, Rae’s follow-up to Insecure, was canceled at Max after two seasons. “You’re seeing very clearly now that our stories are less of a priority. I am pessimistic, because there’s no one holding anybody accountable.”

Mr. & Mrs. Smith isn’t a Black show in the way we’ve been taught to view any mass media originated by a powerful Black person. Sloane hails from El Salvador, and the show’s creative duties are split up between a host of creatives from Hiro Murai to Carla Ching. While the series’ best moments can’t help but interrogate ideas on race and power, it’s always through the prism of matrimony and the ways it can drive the people stuck within it mad.

The pilot episode doesn’t begin with our new John and Jane but instead with two conventionally attractive stand-ins for Pitt and Jolie played by Alexander Skarsgard and Eiza González. Naturally, in the show’s winking manner, Skarsgard’s neck is blown off within minutes, metaphorically signaling that our traditional spies need to die for Glover and Erskine to provide something a tad more esoteric. Perhaps the show’s most loaded (and hilarious) moment arrives when our new half-Japanese, half-white Jane murders three Black targets when she gets jealous that John is connecting with these men over Asian jokes. The racial complications of the situation volley back and forth until they’re too absurd to take seriously. John thinks his Japanese wife is jealous of his Black male bonding, which she’s chastised for by their wealthy white marriage counselor.

Like its protagonists, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is at war with itself, sweating profusely with ideas and ambitions. It’s a self-conscious examination of whether greatness in romance, career aspirations, and art can flourish within the confines of domesticity. The show is enamored of its own sense of subversion, but it most often succeeds when it’s more conventional.

Similar to the institution it seeks to mock and venerate, the pace and emotional fallout of the series is brutal, closer to Marriage Story than Mission: Impossible. It has all the ugly and tortured contours of witnessing a good friend’s marriage disintegrate before your eyes.

Glover’s and Erskine’s portrayals of John and Jane are awkward and cringe-inducing, and the camera often lingers on their most intimate moments with a voyeuristic quality. The duo’s chemistry is slippery. True to life, there’s less of a spark and more of a sloppy runaway freight train of existential and boredom-fueled horniness. You believe their love in the same way you would the word of your hopelessly romantic friend. Time, life, and rapidly decreasing hormonal levels will always tell them what you cannot.

But the sincerity baked into the elevated rom-com premise gives the show its electricity. Glover still has an uncanny ability to disarm the audience, his laugh and innocent charm as infectious as it was behind the Greendale table. While Glover and Erskine’s chemistry waxes and wanes from episode to episode, the show’s comedic moments—Jane warming John’s dangerously frostbitten penis, Jane going to great lengths to hide her farts, John lying about smelling said farts—are its most refreshing.

The conundrum of Mr. & Mrs. Smith is that marriage—like love, vulnerability, and moguldom—is inherently corny because growing older is corny. At 40, Glover is no longer “Trojan horsing” his concepts through the Hollywood system. He’s been part of the industry for almost 20 years, dating back to his time working on 30 Rock. Like James Harden before him, Donald has become a system, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith is the first of his shows to interrogate life from that perspective. Glover’s John is distrusted by the faceless spy corporation in a way Jane is not. Rarely does John follow rules, plans, or conventional thinking even when it becomes clear his life hangs in the balance. Ever since Donald made the leap from network sitcom star to auteur status, he’s chafed against rewriting the history of his ascent.

Part of the myth of Atlanta is how much John Landgraf—the FX executive who coined the phrase “peak TV”—didn’t want the show they ended up getting. “Steve always reminds me, ‘FX didn’t want to do this show—you had to beg them. Fuck them,’” Glover told The New Yorker in a 2018 profile, paraphrasing his brother and Atlanta co-creator. “I like Landgraf, I’ve learned a lot from him, but FX is a business. It’s not there to make some kid from Stone Mountain, Georgia’s dreams come true.” (Landgraf, for his part, didn’t dispute Glover’s narrative. “I don’t have a problem with the Trojan-horse narrative if it’s important to Donald,” Landgraf responded. “We’re in the business of making pieces of commercial television that mask deeper artistic narratives.”)

By Episode 4 of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, this fraught subtext is made plain when Glover and Erskine meet fellow Agents Smith (played by Wagner Moura and Parker Posey) years into their spycraft and relationship. The humor and tragedy of the generational divide between the young and old Smiths is illustrated when the older John is unable to distinguish between a Clipse and Eminem song, in very much the same way most don’t care to interrogate the rise of FX’s Dave in the wake of Atlanta.

“It’s hard to be old and famous and stay punk,” Moura waxes poetically.

“I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t think you’re supposed to be punk,” Donald responds.

Glover returns to the idea of who and what isn’t “punk” a lot. He reportedly told the Atlanta writing staff, “We’re the punk show—what’s the most punk thing to do?” during its conception, and after the disappointing critical reception to Atlanta’s third season, his wife’s response was “You do punk things, you get punk results.” By the time Atlanta returned for the following season, it was competing in a crowded landscape it had paved the way for, as shows like Reservation Dogs, Barry, Ramy, and Dave followed their own lanes of subversion to acclaim of their own.

One of the unspoken tragedies about the end of whatever you want to call the last 20 years of television is that it presented a convenient truth. For a moment, there was a belief—as nurturing as it was naive—that by virtue of TV finally becoming artistically “important” it could also inspire change. Maybe if we watched and related to the depths of Tony Soprano, Walter White, or Don Draper enough we’d come to find out something about ourselves. Naturally, that extended to Earn and Issa and Dre. But that rarely if ever happens. TV is mass media entertainment, and all it’s ever known is the mean. Transcendent television always existed in opposition to that.

In that same New Yorker article, Glover spoke about Atlanta’s capacity to teach something important. Critical consensus was still on the show’s side and we were yet to see the other side of the streaming boom. “I don’t even want them laughing if they’re laughing at the caged animal in the zoo. I want them to really experience racism, to really feel what it’s like to be black in America,” Glover said. “It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!’”

We’re back to digging. And maybe that’s the joy of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. A series this messy being made by a team that still seems to care when the market says they don’t have to is still an entertaining proposition.

Every frame isn’t perfect. Often the show’s world seems to adhere around the joke or punch line, leaving characters to seem far more stupid or downright illogical than they probably should be. But then Ron Perlman delivers a terrible Holocaust joke or Glover punctuates a scene by cocking his hat to the side like a 2007 Derrick Comedy skit and it all comes back into focus.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith found a reason to exist and managed to get there in the most peculiar way possible. It didn’t need to save or change the world, because no amount of peak TV—even the shows by Black creators—could. Like marriage, eras can only last so long until a new pair of Smiths comes around.