Donald Glover and Stephen Glover Make TV a Better Place

Atlanta season 3 was the vibe shift. By that point, Donald Glover’s FX series about the nuances of being Black and aspirational in the Peach State was already an Emmy darling, but in his first quotes teasing the third season, Glover implied that he and his brother Stephen and the rest of their collaborators were aiming for undeniable mainstream appeal. “I feel like this is our Graduation,” he told Indiewire in 2018, referring to Kanye West’s third album. “This is probably our most accessible [season] but also the realest — an honest version of it — and I feel like the most enjoyable.”

When Atlanta season 3 finally aired in 2022, what we got instead was closer to Yeezus: less Stadium status, more Soon as they like you, make ‘em un-like you. Which is not to say that season 3’s ten episodes are purposely abrasive and off-putting—but they definitely use the goodwill capital accrued over the show’s early years to test the audience’s appetite for unconventional storytelling. Half of the installments don’t even feature the characters fans waited four years to see again, instead operating as one-off flights of fancy that have more in common with Rod Serling than rap life.

And when Earn, Van, Paper Boi, and Darius did appear, the concepts were much less accessible than “Rap entourage has a weird, frustrating night at the club.” The season’s arcs and themes were up for debate rather than spelled out; the finale singled out Van for a misadventure involving secret identities, espionage and a horny Alexander Skarsgaard. The Emmy nominations numbered two compared to season two’s thirteen; the viewership for the fourth and final season dwindled proportionally.

Some creators might have been deterred by that response; instead, in retrospect, Atlanta season 3 was the moment Donald Glover, Stephen Glover and their crew (the Royalty, as the squad once referred to themselves in the Childish Gambino days) began to fully lean into the weird, molding television into their image rather than bending their ideas to fit its formula. “We’re always just trying to give people something that they need, but not necessarily what they want,” Stephen told me at the time. An aspiring writer recently asked Stephen for advice on the social-media site formerly known as Twitter; he recommended the seminal screenwriting manual Save the Cat, then added “But a lot of it’s wrong so just watch movies.”

Simply put, the Glovers are here to break the rules. Since Atlanta they’ve delivered two new series, both for Prime: the superfan nightmare Swarm and their latest, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Donald and PEN15‘s Maya Erskine playing spies in a reinvention of Doug Liman’s 2005 big-screen action comedy. Your mileage will vary on which of these experiments worked, and how well, but they are, undeniably, always fascinating to watch.

There’s a hypnotizing pull to their storytelling, with narratives that are often blatantly light on exposition, heavy on mood, and flecked with an air of surrealism—a tone set visually as well, often by frequent collaborator Hiro Murai. Both series mutate heavily over the course of their eight-episode runs, resisting easy trajectory-forecasting from even the most seasoned TV watcher, but always offering reasons to stay invested—shocking bursts of violence, unexpected narrative 180s, pitch-black humor. (Think Swarm’s stan-turned-killer matter-of-factly reciting her favorite artist’s number of Grammy wins as a murder mantra, or Jane Smith threatening a yapping couple with her gun.)

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