'Sneaky Pete' Season 2: TV Review

Still fun, but more effort required.

The Amazon series starring Giovanni Ribisi returns, still sneaky and full of twists, but might require more patience this time around.

There's a certain kind of old-school charm to a series like Amazon's Sneaky Pete, which returned Friday for its second season after a 14-month gap following its first acclaimed, but mostly under-the-radar, run. Old-school as in vintage broadcast network style — and that's not meant to degrade.

Sneaky Pete relies on a series of improbable events to fuel the narrative, which can either be massively fun or massively infuriating or annoying, depending on your mental make-up. In its freshman season, the great joy of watching Sneaky Pete was in the wildly talented cast (seriously, that whole season was a casting coup), and in particular the dynamic between Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the main character, and Bryan Cranston, who created the series along with David Shore (House, The Good Doctor). When CBS passed on the pilot, it was revamped a bit and Cranston stepped in to add some season-long star wattage as a mobster in battle with Marius, the con-man played by Ribisi.

Veteran creator, writer and showrunner Graham Yost (Justified) took over the series after Shore left (post-pilot and before the start of season one) and fashioned it into an intricate thrill-ride that went from light romp to slightly darker and twistier long-con and then stuck the landing in the finale (but is working in season two without Cranston's character, which is part of the problem — more on that in a bit).

But the success of that first season was an intriguing combination of Yost and his writers milking a sustained and intricate con over an entire season between Ribisi and Cranston, while nourishing side stories that offered strong performances from Margo Martindale, Peter Gerety, Alison Wright, Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Michael Drayer and Libe Barer. The premise of the series is that Marius, locked up with a fellow convict named Pete, gets out of prison and impersonates Pete in an effort to bilk money from his grandparents — played by Martindale and Gerety — who haven't seen him in 20-plus years; Marius is going to use the money from that scam to pay off Cranston's mobster figure and, of course, tons of trouble and dicey situations ensue.

While there were certainly issues in season one — lots of detours, character development that at times felt like wheel-spinning — Sneaky Pete worked because it was infectious and fun and could subvert the twists that strained credulity with strong characters and great acting. More often than not, the show delivered on the intricate plotting and topped things off with a very satisfying conclusion.

Season one ended on a cliff-hanger setting up season two — just when it looks like Marius is free, he gets kidnapped by a new group of troublesome dudes who think he's the actual Pete he's been impersonating. And off we go.

The trouble with season two is in part that Cranston leaves a pretty big void, but really has more to do with whether viewers will be up for another season of overly convenient and sometimes ill-conceived twists, dilemmas and decisions that fuel the narrative. It's fun until it isn't (there's always been an Ocean's Eleven-type convenience-for-plot element to Sneaky Pete, where sleight of hand, diversion or impersonation ends up freeing our main characters from whatever trouble they get into (and in Sneaky Pete season two, there seems to be a lot of that). While that's fine as a narrative device if you're willing to go along for that kind of ride, you definitely have to be in the mood.

So much of the streaming and cable world is filled with equally thrilling dramatic rides that are rooted in more plausible situations. That leaves Sneaky Pete as a very clear choice for something a little broadcast network-like in its retro world of almost-caught-you capers. If that feels more fun than manipulative or stressful — and season two of Sneaky Pete is not devoid of the fun found in season one — then by all means opt in. But the show does need absolution for its implausible scenarios that generate dramatic tension (not to mention a seemingly endless number of dubious decisions from characters at every turn).

Sneaky Pete, then, is of a certain style. And one that it does quite well. But without Cranston as the magnetic heavy at the center of the action (or, necessarily, the same kind of long con that defined the first season), the effort it takes to keep up your investment might be more challenging than last season.

Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Margo Martindale, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Libe Barer, Alison Wright, Desmond Harrington, Joseph Lyle Taylor, John Ales

Available on Amazon