Officially, Prime Video’s spy drama Mr. and Mrs. Smith is based on the 2005 film of the same name. Unofficially, however, its origins are a bit murkier. Though this 2024 streaming iteration of Mr. and Mrs. Smith starring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine shares its basic premise with the previous Brad Pitt and Angelina-starring version (a married couple who also happen to be spies), the series diverges from it in some major ways as well.
In an interview with The Today Show, Glover (who also co-created the 2024 series) even admitted to not having seen the 2005 Doug Liman-directed film when he decided to embark upon the project. Co-creator Francesca Sloane wrote in an open letter to fans that “No one would need a show that retold the same blockbuster movie. But what we set out to do was to make something wholly original.”
This latest Mr. and Mrs. Smith seemingly exists because the premise was simply too juicy to not try again, which makes sense because there’s yet another Mr. and Mrs. Smith that predates both the 2005 movie and the 2024 TV show. And it arguably created the archetype for all married spy stories that came after.
Premiering Sept. 20, 1996 on CBS, the network drama Mr. and Mrs. Smith should sound pretty familiar by now. The show starred Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) and Maria Bello (A History of Violence) as the titular characters – two spies who are brought together to pose as a married couple while carrying out espionage missions for an organization known as The Factory. Despite lasting for only one season (and with only nine of its 13 produced episodes even airing in the U.S. before cancellation), Mr. and Mrs. Smith nevertheless stands out as a weirdly influential cultural document.
For starters, the caliber of talent involved is quite impressive for a show that ultimately went nowhere. Bakula was only a few years removed from his legendary stint as Sam Beckett on Quantum Leap when he signed on to produce and star in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
“It was all very appealing to me,” he told The LA Times back in 1996. “The goal for me, if I went back to TV, was finding something that would be different from Quantum, but at the same time would offer me the same kind of variety and interest and continuing excitement over the years that Quantum did.”
Mr. and Mrs. Smith was indeed different from Quantum Leap in the sense that it sucked … or at least the pilot did. Thanks to Warner Bros. Television’s presumed lack of interest in enforcing this particular copyright, you can watch the entirety of that pilot on YouTube. But be forewarned: Scott Bakula eventually gets on a skateboard for the slowest high-speed chase you’ve ever seen.
Still, Mr. and Mrs. Smith remains notable for many reasons. In addition to Bakula, securing Maria Bello as the female lead is a huge get in hindsight. Though she was relatively unknown at the time, Bello would go on to have an enormously successful career with award-worthy roles in projects like Coyote Ugly, The Cooler, Thank You for Smoking, and more. Additionally, the pilot episode also happens to feature the acting debut of future TV and movie star Timothy Olyphant (Justified). Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith marks the first time we all ever saw the man who would be Raylan Givens. He plays a guy named Scooby who looks like this.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith also has some surprising Sopranos connections. Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, a writing duo who would go on to write many episodes of The Sopranos and win five Emmy awards between them, wrote the second episode of this CBS series. Actress Aida Turturro, who would eventually play Janice Soprano in the HBO classic, turns up here for a two-episode stint as “Rox.”
The creators behind the 1996 Mr. and Mrs. Smith have an incredibly impressive TV resume in their own right. Kerry Lenhart and John J. Sakmar got their big break as story editors on MacGyver. In a 2015 interview with The MacGyver Project, Lenhart says, “We were hired and told that we would be ‘MacGyverism specialists’ i.e. we would supply MacGyverisms for other writers’ scripts.” After the cancellation of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sakmar and Lenhart would continue to successfully work in television, even winning a Peabody award for penning the “Chapter 37” episode of Boston Public. Currently, they serve as showrunners on BET+’s Kingdom Business.
In a strange way, the 1996 Mr. and Mrs. Smith feels like a nexus point in TV history where countless major players either got their start or merely passed through. So why then, have many of us likely not heard of it until now? There are a couple potential reasons for that. For starters, as mentioned previously, the show is pretty bad. Though it gets better after the pilot, it never makes good enough use of its premise to be worthy of its viewers’ time.
Bakula and Bello have great chemistry and are allowed to be overtly horny in a way you rarely see on network TV these days, but the plots constructed around them aren’t particularly compelling. The Smiths’ organization, “The Factory,” is a mere private security firm and not a globe-spanning espionage agency like something out of James Bond or even Archer. Perhaps audiences had had their fill of Cold War intrigue six years after the Soviet Bloc collapsed, but secret agents are very clearly more exciting than corporate investigators. The show is also set in Seattle as opposed to New York or D.C., which feels like the show attempting to call its shot on predicting the city of the 21st century. The mere fact that the pilot makes a “the grunge thing is dead” joke should probably have been a giveaway that they chose poorly.
Secondly (and this one is important), the 1996 Mr. and Mrs. Smith actually has nothing to do with the 2005 Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Despite featuring the same name and a passingly familiar premise, Simon Kinberg’s script for the 2005 Mr. and Mrs. Smith was written on spec and is classified as an original screenplay. Kinberg told The Omaha World-Herald that the idea came from hearing about two friends in marriage counseling, saying, “The way they were talking about it sounded kind of aggressive and mercenary. And I just thought it would make an interesting template for a relationship inside of an action film.”
The cynical interpretation of this Mr. and Mrs. Smith TV show and movie kismet is that Kinberg somehow “stole” the idea but that doesn’t seem likely. It may sound impossible now but back in the late ’90s and early 2000s it was actually technically possible to be unaware of something’s existence. Before the internet began cataloging everything, a show like Mr. and Mrs. Smith could air for nine poorly-rated episodes and then go away seemingly forever. Additionally, if there was any money to be made in Warner Bros. Television seeking a “Based on the TV series” credit from 20th Century Fox then they certainly would have pursued it.
In reality, the existence of the 1996 Mr. and Mrs. Smith just proves how valuable and timeless the concept of spies in love remains. Trying to balance a professional life based on secrecy and a personal life based in trust speaks to the impossible dynamics that people often feel in their own home and work lives. If you count FX’s The Americans (and you should), pop culture is due for a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-esque story every eight to 11 years or so. See you all again in 2033!
All eight episodes of Mr. and Mrs. Smith are available to stream on Prime Video now.