The long-percolating Sneaky Pete debuted as part of Amazon’s pilot season in August of 2015, and after proving popular with Prime viewers in the platform’s voting system, gained itself a full series order. The appeal of Sneaky Pete is immediate — Pete (Giovanni Ribisi) is actually Marius, a con man who gets out of jail and, in order to lay low, assumes the identity of his cellmate who has been out of contact with is family for two decades, but told a lot of very detailed stories about them over the last three years. Marius needs to hide out because he and his brother, Eddie (Michael Drayer) owe a crime boss (Vince, played by Bryan Cranston) $100k. And while Eddie has ended up employed with Vince, it’s all an elaborate play to get Marius back in Vince’s sights so he can kill him.
That duplicity is what Sneaky Pete trades on, as Marius pretends to be the returned prodigal grandson of Pete’s estranged family in upstate New York. There’s Grandma Audrey (Margo Martingale), Grandpa Otto (Peter Gerety), and three cousins — Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae), and Carly (Libe Barer). They also happen to own a bail bonds agency, which is the perfect cover for Marius, who uses his keen people-reading skills and own criminal activities to help track down anyone who has skipped. That helps engender him to the family, but most are still wary of him in some way and find his lapses in memory a little puzzling, even if most don’t pull on the thread. But Marius scrambling to keep up and make sure he’s pulling off a believable con lends a great amount of tension to the series.
Sneaky Pete is about the preternatural, not the supernatural, but Marius’ street smarts and network of allies keeps him one Ferris Beuller-like step ahead of his adversaries at almost all times. The problem comes when Vince realizes he’s out of prison and that Eddie has been in contact with him, putting Eddie in danger and Marius at risk of being caught by his new family. That family is important, too, because as Sneaky Pete makes clear, Marius is not just conning them but falling into step with them. He likes them, and has a particular attraction to his “cousin,” which of course he can’t act on.
So you have heists and con men and bounty hunters and parole officers and crime bosses, which sounds like a very entertaining setup. And it is, truly. Sneaky Pete isn’t breaking any new ground with its story, nor is it trying to be prestige TV. It has some narrative hiccups and can be a little too transparent in its machinations, but it’s also just fun and not overly complicated. It reveals the details of the deal that went bad between Marius and Vince by the second episode, and not long after that, we learn other details of the family’s past, proving that the show isn’t interesting in teasing out mysteries or twists, only in playing up the tension within Marius to hold everything together. (Justified’s Graham Yost is the showrunner, and there are some definite tonal similarities at times, even if Sneaky Pete ultimately isn’t quite as special as that modern western was).
Ribisi is all squints and shuffles, straining and twitchy as Marius calculates his next move (to pickpocket, deceive, or the like). He’s not an action guy in a traditional sense — he’s small, and he avoids physical confrontations as much as possible — but his strength is being smart and observant, which keeps the show grounded yet always moving quickly.
Ribisi is also surrounded by a great cast, most especially Martindale, who is always the MVP of just about anything she does. But while Grandma Audrey is a force to be reckoned with, Ireland’s Julia is all eye-rolls and sarcasm, which plays up to the show’s more wryly comedic side. Sneaky Pete’s very setup calls for a playfulness in the material, and it would be a shame to waste it. It doesn’t. Though Cranston is a little hammy as he chews the scenery, it’s fitting for a crime boss.
And that’s the thing — Sneaky Pete isn’t reinventing the wheel here. But it is providing a fun, easily binge-able caper. In a TV landscape packed with twisty Puzzle TV and overly dour dramas, that’s a refreshing thing, nothing sneaky about it.
Rating: ★★★ Good — A fun con-man caper.
Sneaky Pete’s full first season premieres Friday, January 13th on Amazon.