Sneaky Pete

4 out of 5

Created by: David Shore, Bryan Cranston

covers season 1

Amazon’s whole pilot season thing hadn’t produced much of lasting worth for me.  Passing interest, yes, but, nothing that I’d be actively looking forward to.   Until Sneaky Pete.  I’m not going to claim to have followed Giovanni Ribisi’s career to any given project, but flicks like Boiler Room always stuck out as proof that he would be a really compelling leading man, given the right material.  And Sneaky Pete’s slippery slidey setup seemed to offer just that.

But time came and went, and although the pilot had a good reception, a series didn’t seem to materialize.  …For production change-ups, it turns out.  For whatever reason(s), co-creator and procedural guy David Shore was out, and Graham Yost – likely best known as a writer on Hey, Dude – was in as showrunner.

Just kidding y’all.  Graham has been attached to many notable shows and specials, though most recently, relative to Sneaky Pete: Justified.  Now, Justified was an odd show, never quite settling into a long-running groove, but it definitely hit several high notes and had a tendency to dawdle on the fringes of morality, which is absolutely something that seemed to translate well for Pete.  Not that we can know exactly what Shore’s pitch would have been beyond the pilot, but other co-creator and co-star Brian Cranston’s role as a New York heavy to whom Pete owed a debt was apparently expanded under Yost, and the focus shifted away from procedural to slowburn drama; the assumptions made is that the show we got is a lot more fulfilling than what might’ve been.

The roots are there in our opening: Marius Josipovic (Giovanni) is at the end of a stint in jail, having spent a good long portion of it listening to Pete (Ethan Embry) tell stories from his youth over and over.  He’s released, but a panicked call from his brother (Michael Drayer) sends him into hiding: The man to whom Pete had been paying off a debt while incarcerated – the man from whom Marius had been running when he was jailed – Vince (Cranston), still feels there’s a debt owed, and maybe it’s a “pay in blood” type.  The recommendation to Marius is to keep running.

But where to go to stay close enough to keep tabs on his brother, still under Vince’s thumb?  Well, thankfully Marius is an ace conman, and he has all those detailed stories of Pete’s past… allowing him to track down Grandma and Grandpa and pose as their long estranged grandson.

Quite a setup.  And had Shore’s pitch had its way, we would have followed Marius on episodic capers that applied his con skills to help out with Pete’s family’s bail bonds business.  Instead – happily – we go darker.

Spinning out from that opening are Marius schemes to come put ahead of this situation – free of Vince, and hopefully richer.  He spots some money-making opportunities via his conned adopted family, but of course, the more he sinks in to the act, the less we want him to pull one (more over on them).  The brilliance of the script is not overplaying the hand on this aspect: Marius very clearly knows how to separate feelings from his machinations, but is also clearly invested in the family’s plight.  The two ideals are at odds, and there’s a willful – though, again, not beating the audience over the head about it – allowing of the immediacy of one problem (there’s a ticking clock to vince’s threats) to overwhelm the other.  The pressure cooker definitely takes several episodes to get the stakes churning, but once you’re past the midway point, you’re all in, can’t-help-but-look as the con knife twists further.

Ribisi is excellent, giving his character a misleading cluelessness that suddenly flip-flops to shark attack observational precision; a life of withholding indications of his abilities.  Drayer finds the perfect balance between defiance and helpless bait, and all of the family members – but especially matriarch Margo Martindale – turn in fully enveloping performances.  Justified’s Jacob Pitts does a turn as a sleazy (or is he?) ex-boyfriend, and Cranston is just fantastic as Vince.  Most guys would play the role too far into bad guy territory, but Breaking Bad has taught the actor well, bringing just enough humanity to the role to make him especially believable… and frightening.

Besides the general change in direction, the most satisfying thing about Sneaky Pete’s approach is how well melded together all of the bits and pieces are.  Subplotty elements like the daughter’s suspicions of “Pete” and an ex-employee of the bail bonds job floating about the peripheral end up getting massaged into the show’s general flow effectively, enhancing the main plot instead of acting as clear stalls.

But… yeah, it takes some time to get there.  The initial lack of clarity on how things fit together pays off on good slowburn shows like Pete, but the best slowburns will still do something to put their hooks in.  And, a la Justified, Sneaky Pete doesn’t seem too concerned with that.  Comfortable in its own skin, perhaps, and rightfully so, but I wouldn’t judge anyone for questioning where things are going early on.  And, it must be said, shows about cons make or awful easy to back out of anything at the last second and claim it was a fake out.

Does Sneaky Pete do that…?  Well, I shan’t spoil it.  Either way, if you do find something to keep you watching, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most tightly knit and entertaining cable shows from the era of streaming.