Sneaky Pete is Sneaky Good

Photo: Giovanni Ribisi in Sneaky Pete (Amazon)

Margo Martindale and Giovanni Ribisi star in Sneaky Pete

I caught all ten episodes of the first season of Amazon’s gripping new con artist-drama, Sneaky Pete. [1] Originally developed for CBS by Bryan Cranston (Matlock, Murder She Wrote) and David Shore (House), it later transitioned to the streaming service with Justified’s executive producer, Graham Yost replacing Shore as the show-runner. This was a smart move, as Cranston and Yost create a fast-paced crime caper that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Giovanni Ribisi is compelling as Marius Josepovic, a con man closing in on the end of his three-year stint in prison. Unfortunately, he’s spent most of it suffering through his cellmate’s, Pete Murphy (Ethan Embry), incessant rambling about the idyllic summers of his childhood spent at his grandparent’s Connecticut farm. [2]Upon contacting his little brother Eddie (Michael Drayer), Marius learns that he is owes $100,000 to Vince (Cranston), an ex-NYPD cop turned vindictive gangster, who runs an underground poker game for high-rollers. Marius attempted to deceive Vince three years ago and the gangster been seeking retribution ever since. This gives Marius an idea. Pete’s wealthy grandparents are in the “bond business” and he hasn’t seen them in twenty years. Since Marius is around the same age and bears a slight resemblance to Pete, he could con the rich grandparents into thinking he was their long lost grandchild and steal the money required to satisfy Vince’s debt. What could possibly go wrong?

Enter the marks: Audrey (Margo Martindale) and Otto Bernhardt (Peter Geherty). Posing as Pete, Marius arrives at their doorstop and they are stunned yet thrilled to see him. Marius proceeds to meet Pete’s three cousins, Taylor (Shane McRae), Julia (Marin Ireland), and teenaged Carly (Libe Barer). They are delighted to reunite with their long lost cousin. Carly wasn’t around when Pete and his mother broke off contact, so she is understandably skeptical about his sudden reappearance into their lives.[3]

Much to his dismay, Marius learns that his new family actually runs a failing “bail bonds” business on the verge of insolvency. He decides to stay committed to the con, because he really doesn’t have any alternatives. As Marius begins to assist the family with their business and charm them with his disarmingly sheepish demeanor, he formulates a plan to swindle them. In order to achieve this duplicity, he seeks out the help of his old team of con artists to execute a series of schemes. First, to deceive his parole officer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), followed by the Bernhardts and finally, Vince and his entourage. [4] What follows are a string of intricate cons, poor decisions, close calls, and inevitable violence, as Marius’ and the Bernhardt’s problems spiral out of control. Even though dodging a ruthless gangster is pretty darn dangerous, Marius’ biggest threat is Pete’s family. His most important rule of grifting is “don’t get attached.” Uh, oh.

Sneaky Pete isn’t perfect. The Bernhardt family deals with dishonest criminals everyday so they don’t seem particularly vulnerable to such an obvious con. Also, the first couple episodes feel more like a strong addition to CBS’ Friday night lineup;[5] it spends too much time dealing with a more procedural based storyline and lower stakes. Luckily, the show finds it’s footing in its rollicking, more serialized second half, as Yost and Cranston infuse Sneaky Pete with the palpable tension and dark humor that made Justified so successful. While it doesn’t have the lofty ambitions and near-flawless execution of TV’s finest prestige dramas[6], Sneaky Pete provides more than enough riveting twists and fun performances to make for an exciting ride.

Sneaky Pete owes a lot of its success to its talented cast. Giovanni Ribisi is a versatile actor whose comedic and dramatic abilities are often wasted. [7]That isn’t the case here; he’s perfectly cast as a cunning con artist, skilled at talking his way out of trouble, while also being believable as “Fake” Pete. Unsurprisingly, Emmy Award winner Margo Martindale[8] is superb as the Bernhardt’s headstrong and pragmatic matriarch. She’s always so tremendously convincing. Bryan Cranston has a blast with his return to his character actor roots.[9] He makes for a terrific villain, displaying considerable arrogance and menacing rage with a predilection for chilling monologues and violent outbursts. [10]

Sneaky Pete’s supporting cast is loaded with an all-star collection of character actors. Victor Williams’ (Deacon from King of Queens) appearance as Vince’s enforcer makes me wonder if he’s living a double life and if so, what kind of shenanigans Doug Heffernan got involved with this time for his best buddy to turn to a life of violent crime. Jay O. Sanders and his cartoon villain chin show up as the Bernhardt’s former skip tracer, in one of his most memorable roles since portraying the pompous broadcaster who publicly shamed Danny Glover and JGL for believing that God actually cares about sports in Angels in the Outfield. Finally, I would like to joke about Malcolm Jamal-Warner’s most famous role on a once beloved sitcom, but I’m not in the mood and most likely never will be. [11]So drop it. Thanks.

Thanks to engaging performances, colorful characters, and a tightly constructed plot, Sneaky Pete never outstays its welcome. Cranston and Yost respect their audiences’ intelligence (there are only a few eye-rolling inducing contrivances) without making the plot too convoluted. Revelations uncovered in the season finale should add promising potential and extra dimensions to the storyline for the second season and beyond.

After finishing Sneaky Pete, I decided to re-watch Matchstick Men and The Sting. I did this to educate and protect myself from being the target of any potential cons. So if you are a Nigerian prince who is in dire need of my financial assistance, believe there is time share that I might be interested in, or want to offer a “priceless violin” in exchange for my legal representation in a shady real estate deal, please contact me on one of my many Radio Shack burner phones so I can give you my social security number.

 

Title: Sneaky Pete

Release Date: Available now (all ten episodes)

Network: Amazon

Score: *** out of ****

Created by: David Shore and Bryan Cranston

Show-runner: Graham Yost

Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Margo Martindale, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Libe Barer, Shane McRae, Michael Drayer, and Bryan Cranston

 

[1] Sneaky Pete has been renewed for season two.

[2] Sounds almost as bad as my married friends’ rants on the best school districts in Northeast Florida. Apparently, all the kids in Nocatee attend Ilvermorny’s satellite campus (look it up).

[3] Please remind me to go find Taylor and Julia so I can sell them a “rolex.”

[4] Like Mr. Carson and his boys on Downton Abbey.

[5] I eagerly awaited a cameo from Tom Selleck’s that never came. Note to self: a Where’s Waldo-like book series featuring Mr. Sellek would be amazing.

[6] The Americans, Fargo, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, etc…

[7] Watch Fox’s abysmal sitcom Dads.

[8] Justified (2011) and The Americans (2015, 2016)

[9] Before his likely career-defining performance as Zorgon in the upcoming Power Rangers’ movie. Fun Fact: Mr. Cranston provided the voices of Twinman and Snizard on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in his finest work to date.

[10] I believe the real reason he created this role was so he could learn how to count cards and to share scenes with the strikingly beautiful Karolina Wydra. You’re not fooling me, Mr. Cranston.

[11] Malcolm & Eddie? The one where he played Michael Wilbon opposite Jason Alexander’s Tony Kornheiser?