Crime dramas don’t always have to be somber explorations of a life lived around or on the wrong side of the law. After all, for every dour hour of True Detective there is a jaunty episode of Fargo. And while there’s no right or wrong way to approach crime on television, tonal variation is a welcome addition to any show dealing with those who make the unlawful underbelly home. That is certainly the case in Amazon’s newest series Sneaky Pete, from David Shore and Bryan Cranston, which sets up a potentially dark story concerning ex-cons, stolen identities, and the ominous threat of old debts settled through the not-so strategic removal of fingers, and puts a decidedly fun spin on it – something in the vein of, say, an Elmore Leonard novel.
The Leonard connection may subconsciously be the result of showrunner Graham Yost’s involvement, since he stepped in to replace Shore after CBS passed on the series in 2015, and Amazon wisely snapped the property up. Yost, of course, adapted Leonard’s Fire in the Hole story, turning it into FX’s acclaimed (and fun) drama Justified, and he’s bringing the same kinds of nimble, dialogue-driven sensibilities to this new series. Yost has also brought along several of his friends from FX to accompany Giovanni Ribisi and Bryan Cranston; namely, Margo Martindale, Jacob Pitts (Justified), and Alison Wright (The Americans). It’s the sort of terrific cast that makes you wonder why CBS would pass it up, though after seeing the pilot, perhaps the network made the wiser decision, as this series is best suited to the sensibilities of cable and streaming services.
That story concerns Ribisi’s Marius, a recently paroled thief on the lam from crime boss Vince (Cranston) to whom he and his brother owe an enormous debt. The two stole a hefty sum from Vince and despite having paid it back, Vince isn’t one to let something like compound interest (or his innate sense of vindictiveness) slide. He wants restitution, and not just in the form of dollar bills.
Lucky for Marius he’s been bunking with Pete (Ethan Embry), a con who’s looking at a long stretch in the pen and has a penchant for wistful ruminations on the childhood he spent with the grandparents and cousins he hasn’t seen in two decades. As you may have guessed, those grandparents (played by Martindale and Peter Gerety, respectively) present Marius with the perfect place to hide while he figures the whole Vince situation out. It is the sort of premise that, upon hearing it, you say, “Yup, that’s a TV show all right.” But the pilot is so energetic, swiftly paced, and entertaining, the idea of Marius living a lie, as Pete (re)integrating himself into a family the real Pete had long left behind, becomes one of the show’s biggest selling points, not something worth crooking an eyebrow over.
The series throws in plenty of wrinkles to Marius’s plan, not least of which is a job working side-by-side with Pete’s cousin Julia (Main Ireland) as a bounty hunter for the family’s struggling bail bonds business. Add in another cousin, Taylor (Shane McRae), who happens to be a cop, and you have some homegrown conflict that makes every meal around the family dinner table as illuminating for Marius as it is potentially hazardous. But the show makes the absurdity of the plot work largely because the characters are so charming, it’s hard not to want them to catch a break and get what they want. Much of that has to do with the fact that the show doesn’t linger on its premise for very long. About halfway through the pilot episode, Sneaky Pete does away with the introductions and gets down to business by putting Marius and Julia in search of a dangerous bail jumper played by Domenick Lombardozzi. The two have a quick connection and an easy rapport that makes their pairing work from the get-go, but it’s also clearly intended to cause some questionable (but not really) friction, as Marius soon finds himself making eyes at his not-cousin.
Anchoring the show is Ribisi, finding himself in the kind of leading man role he is good at, but is rarely afforded an opportunity to play. Over the years, Ribisi has taken to playing quirky roles as supporting characters or semi-unlikable weirdos, often denoted by odd ticks or some variation on a nasally vocal inflection. None of that is present here. Instead, Ribisi plays Marius as someone on a surprisingly even keel. Ribisi and the show paint Marius’s thieving ways and frequent dealings with unsavory types as highly prized attributes – the perfect peg to fit into the show’s storytelling slot. But like everything else, the narrative convenience of an ex-con with a certain set of skills, chasing down people just like him and experiencing the joys of being a part of a family for the first time is easy to overlook. Everything is exactly as the show needs it to be and that’s just fine – largely because Sneaky Pete is just so much fun to watch.
Cranston’s part in the pilot is small, but that’s the right choice. In what little we see of him, Vince is an amalgamation of Malcolm in the Middle’s Hal and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Maybe it has something to do with the hair. At any rate, Cranston exudes an engaging menace falsely mitigated by the faux fatherly way he engages with Marius and his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer). Like with Ribisi, Cranston’s performance reads as something the actor is skilled at delivering, but isn’t offered to play perhaps as much as he should be.
Sneaky Pete adds up to a sharp crime drama, focused on delivering strong performances within an entertaining premise. It took a while for this one to finally reach television screens, but from the pilot alone, it was worth the wait.
Sneaky Pete season 1 is currently available on Amazon Prime Video.