'Sneaky Pete': TV Review

Courtesy of Eric Liebowitz/Amazon Prime Video
Giovanni Ribisi (left) in Amazon's 'Sneaky Pete'
Let this be a long con...

The fantastic new Amazon series starring Giovanni Ribisi as a con man just out of jail comes out of the gates quick and confident — and gets even better from there.

It's always a joy when a new show comes racing out of the gate filled with confidence and then continues to prove whatever magic it made in the pilot wasn't a fluke. Amazon's newest drama, Sneaky Pete, which became a notorious pilot once CBS (of all entities) passed on it and a bidding war between cable channels and streaming services ensued, absolutely needed the follow-up episodes to reverberate.

In fact, they do better than that — they improve on the pilot. Subsequent Sneaky Pete episodes manage that all-too-rare feat in this crowded "Peak TV" universe: They make you want more time with these characters and this story immediately. In a world where viewers can turn off an episode and sample plenty of other appealing treats in the candy store of their visual desires, immediately watching a second episode of the same series is nothing short of a triumph.

Created by David Shore (House) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and executive produced by Cranston and Graham Yost (Justified, The Americans), who also serves as showrunner, Sneaky Pete has the kind of wild premise that's fun in part because it can't possibly hold up. Giovanni Ribisi plays Marius, a con man who is on the verge of getting out of jail (how he got there is explained, very creatively, through an ongoing series of flashbacks).

Saddled with a talkative cell mate who won't shut up about fond childhood stories (none of the kind that Marius grew up with), Marius is struck by an idea: Once on the outside, he will assume his cell mate's identity (yes, he's named Pete), head to upstate New York and con Pete's rich grandparents.

Again, the wink here is that all late ideas are bad ideas. All con men think they can pull off the impossible (and are sometimes pushed to attempt it when family woes arise, which they do for Marius). And it's hard to give up a con when you're a con. Never mind that Marius and Pete only kinda-sorta look like each other (Pete clearly is taller). It's been 20 years since the grandparents saw Pete — what could possibly go wrong?

Every excellent series is fueled by great writing, and Shore, Cranston (for the pilot), Yost and others in that room are more than up to the task in the early episodes. But sometimes the little nudge over the top comes from casting. And the casting folks truly nailed it with Margo Martindale and Peter Gerety as the grandparents, Audrey and Otto. Gerety is a crusty and crotchety delight in everything, and Martindale is in a class by herself, as evidenced by her notable roles in Justified and The Americans. In Sneaky Pete, you know immediately that Martindale's Audrey is very dubious about long-lost Pete showing up on her doorstep.

The spot-on casting doesn't stop there. Ribisi is a delight — he's put his fingerprints on a number of fine roles in the past, but if Sneaky Pete takes off for Amazon, this one can add some definition. He's funny and likable and, when the stakes get raised and the narrative becomes dramatic, he's the anchor. Cranston, who was only supposed to have a small role as Vince, the dangerous gangster Marius tried and failed to con, has stuck around (it's still a small role, but important, and you can sense he feels there's something special going on). Marin Ireland (Hell or High Water, Girls), who is long overdue for a role fully worthy of her talents, could end up being the wild card here. She plays Julia, one of fake Pete's many relatives whom, as it turns out, he doesn't really know much about (see, that plan had lots of holes). She's a cousin one senses may become a kissing cousin in a subsequent season, but there are a lot of plates to spin in Pete's big lie to get anywhere near that point.

Elsewhere, there's Julia's brother, Taylor (Shane McRae), who grew up roughhousing with Pete and fondly remembers all that jocular troublemaking they got into — but now he's a cop. Much of the twisted joy in Sneaky Pete comes from watching the constant trouble a con man can get into, especially if he may not be super good at it. Finding out that the real Pete's grandparents aren't really into stocks and bonds and thus aren't rich — they're more like, well, bail bonds people who barely make ends meet — is the first bit of disheartening news for fake Pete.

Back in New York, his screw-up younger brother, Eddie (Michael Drayer of Mr. Robot), is not exactly fixing things with Vince, and from there a whole chain reaction of tense but entertaining and sometimes hilarious twists ensue.

Sneaky Pete struts with confidence as Shore, Cranston and Yost (who took over showrunning duties on the second episode) take us on the roller-coaster ride of Marius/Pete's dubious idea in all of its broken but hopeful glory. There's a palpable sense of forward motion in the con itself, and then, as the episodes unfold, the ensemble cast beyond Ribisi, Martindale and Cranston gets to really shine as characters begin spinning out in new directions.

That's a wonderful and encouraging sign — Sneaky Pete is immediately likable, unspooling with exhilaration, and then, almost when we're not expecting or even needing it to, the series develops other favorable attributes that hint at a longer, more complex run.

Studio: Amazon Studios
Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Bryan Cranston, Margo Martindale, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Libe Barer, Michael Drayer
Creators: David Shore, Bryan Cranston
Executive producer and showrunner: Graham Yost
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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