Friday, September 24, 2010

Killed in the Ratings: “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”

(The 11th entry in a month-long series about American TV crime dramas that debuted with fanfare, but are now largely forgotten.)

Title: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Starring: Scott Bakula
and Maria Bello

Original Run: 1996 (13 episodes, including pilot), CBS-TV

Premise: Other than its title and the fact that it was also a romantic comedy of sorts, this Mr. & Mrs. Smith had little in common with the better-remembered 2005 Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt film. CBS’ Friday-night series focused on a couple of globetrotting young spies, the pseudonymous Mr. Smith (Bakula) and Mrs. Smith (Bello), who were employed by a super-secret private security agency known as “The Factory.” Together they conducted covert operations under the guise of a married couple--a humorous thing, since neither knew much of anything about the other, not even their partner’s true identity. As the Smiths shared--or more likely lied to each other about--their traits and trails through life, and bickered with a frequency not uncommon to truly-weds, they managed to complete hazardous missions involving high explosives, stolen currency, missing missiles, assassination plots, and (as part of their cover) suburban get-togethers. The pair took their assignments from an equally cloaked boss, Mr. Big (Roy Dotrice). The sexual chemistry that was cooked up by the Smiths’ involuntary but not entirely displeasing association was supposed to remind television viewers of either the private-eye series Moonlighting or the Thin Man movies, or maybe both.

Created by Kerry Lenhart and John J. Sakmar

Additional Notes: Executive producer Lenhart told TV Guide why he liked the anonymity of his two lead characters. “Having worked on Remington Steele, a fun thing was that you never knew who Remington was, but you know who [private eye] Laura [Holt] was. This is like double fun because you’re really not sure who either one of them is.” Certainly, that mystery offered opportunities for some surprises, as one partner would suddenly demonstrate talents or knowledge that the other didn’t know he or she had. More interesting, however, was the evolving relationship--professional and personal--between Bakula (who was then best known for his years flipping through time on Quantum Leap) and Bello (whose appearance in Mr. & Mrs. Smith proved to be her breakout role). Bakula’s Smith seemed rather too wholesome and naïve to be an espionage agent, but the alternately sassy and sultry Bello came off as clever and audacious enough to thrive in that shadowy trade--and to benefit, if begrudgingly, from Bakula’s less seat-of-the-pants professionalism. If anyone, she really sold this show. Unfortunately, critics weren’t buying it. Commenting on the September 1996 pilot film, which was shot in Seattle and found Mr. Smith first meeting Mrs. Smith (who then worked for a competing “rent-a-spy company”), The New York Times said that Bakula “seems to be sleepwalking as Mr. Smith,” while Bello played her part “as if she were auditioning for the role of a Bond-girl understudy.” The newspaper called this program “so banal it makes life-threatening espionage combined with sexual tension seem dull.” Ouch! Even as a 9-10 p.m. bridge between the popular sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond and Don Johnson’s Nash Bridges, Mr. & Mrs. Smith couldn’t find an audience. CBS yanked it after broadcasting just eight or nine of its 13 episodes; the remainder were only shown overseas, according to Wikipedia.

Above: Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s write-up in the September 14-20, 1996, Fall Preview edition of TV Guide. (Click to enlarge the image.) Below: The pilot film’s opening and some of its early scenes, one showing Timothy Olyphant (later of Deadwood fame) in his first TV role, playing Bakula’s original spying partner, Scooby.

READ MORE:A TV Series Review by Michael Shonk: Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1996)” (Mystery*File); “Home of the Forgotten: TV Spies,” by Michael Shonk (Criminal Element).

1 comment:

David Cranmer said...

Maria Bello can do no wrong. I wouldn't mind catching this some time.